A Change of Seasons
Xena finished her cup and took a few nibbles from the tray, then she got up and went to the window, leaning on the sill and looking out.
Wasn’t much to see, save the path and the trees that shrouded their space in privacy. She appreciated that, but liked the view from their cabin better and as she stood there she decided she’d suggest they sleep up there instead of in the village that night.
She wished it was night. The constant chaos was rubbing her raw.
A rasp of leather on stone made her turn her head and look towards the path, spotting Solari making her way towards the door. “Hey.” She said, as the Amazon drew near.
“Hey.” Solari returned the greeting. “I saw Gabrielle head over to the junior’s place.”
“Yeah.” Xena agreed. “Got a wineskin, want some?”
“Sure.” Solari pushed the door open and entered. “Cait’s watching her back.”
“I know.” Xena’s eyes twinkled briefly as she retreated back to the chairs and snagged Solari a cup. “She’s going to try and squeeze the story we’re all chasing around here out of them.” She handed the dark haired Amazon the wine and sat down again. “Doesn’t add up.”
“Any of it.” Xena propped her elbow on the chair arm and rested her chin on her hand.
Solari nodded. “Yeah that was a mess.” She agreed. “Glad you kicked some sense into those guys. Would have been a long ass day if you hadn’t.”
Common reaction. Xena reflected. “Idiots.”
“Idiots.” Solari repeated. “But I heard them all talking when Benny was rounding them up – glad they didn’t have to fight ya. They ain’t that dumb.”
Xena chuckled briefly.
“They ain’t gonna forget seeing that, for sure. Wish I had.” Solari said. “Cait was telling me about it. She thinks she totally lucked out you having sent her over there.” She gave Xena a bit of a look. “We woulda gone, y’know.”
“I told her to take reinforcements.” Xena said, with a slight touch of exasperation. “Don’t’ know what she thought she was doing going alone.”
Solari laughed a little. “Dunno, Xena. What did you think of, going over there alone?”
Xena eyed her, the she smiled. “I did it on purpose.” She admitted. “I wanted to see if I could turn them around. Not risk everyone fighting.” She hiked one knee up and rested her hand on it.
“Shame about Aalene.” Solari said, after a brief pause. “I didn’t forget Renas being such an ass as fast as some people did.” She eyed Xena. “But still, stupid y’know?”
“Yeah. Stupid, because it doesn’t make sense, them being down there.” Xena mused, shaking her head. “They shouldn’t have been.”
“Why? Their stuff was there, wasn’t it?” Solari frowned. “What d’you mean? You know they were selling all that jewelry.. I guess they got Aalene to go help them carry their gear back.”
Xena shook her head again. “No. When Cait came up to get me, I talked to Renas, here at the gate.” She pointed over her shoulder vaguely at the front of the village. “They’d already taken the far side of the bridge.”
Solari stared at her. “Huh?”
“How’d she and Das get over there?” Xena lifted her cup in one hand in a questioning motion. “And Gabrielle said she spoke to Aalene before she went down to the town, and she was going to go talk to…” Xena paused. “Talk to those kids. That’s what she’s tracking down with them.”
Solari slowly sipped her wine. “So you’re saying they were all up here before the fight? Xena, that makes no sense. I talked to the nutball twins… they saw them in the scrap down there before you went over the bridge.”
“Yeah. That’s the point.” Xena said. “It doesn’t make sense.”
“Huh. Let me go get Paladia.” Solari got up. “She was with them in the market when it went down. Maybe they said something to her.” She paused at the door and looked back at Xena. “She saved that kid’s life Stood up to a half dozen of those bastards in the scrap.”
Xena nodded. “I heard. Funny place for her to end up, huh?”
Solari came back over and sat down again. “Xena, first night she was with us way back I came like this..” She held her finger and thumb almost against each other. “To killing her in her sleep. I was so mad what she did to Eph.”
Xena merely nodded.
“I didn’t get it, you know? Why you brought her back.” Solari said. “Why not just break her neck?”
Why? Xena let her eyes unfocus for a moment thinking back to that time. “She was just a stupid kid.” She responded, after moment. “Gab thought she could turn her around.”
Solari grunted in acknowledgement.
“I thought she was right. Kid wasn’t evil. Just screwed up.” Xena shifted a little and smiled briefly. “Anyway, after I found out what those kids went through I was glad I didn’t.” She took a sip from her cup. “It worked out.”
“It did. She makes a better Amazon than most.” Solari admitted. “Let me go grab her and see what she knows about those guys.” She got up again and went out, the door swinging to behind her and returning the hut to peaceful silence.
Xena got up herself and wandered around the small space, going into the kids room and over to the back window to look outside, chuckling a little in remembering Dori’s discovery of the invaders in the village. “That’s my kid.” She spoke aloud, feeling again that spurt of pride, and smiling over it.
Little Dori, looking out the window and in the darkness seeing shadows, and having the presence of mind to not only pay attention, but to understand what she saw and know what to do about it. “You’re lucky she went and got Cait, and not charged out to go after the bastards herself.”
True. Xena leaned against the window sill, crossing her arms. But of all the traits her daughter could have developed, that mixture of smarts and courage made her the happiest and she exhaled in satisfaction, thinking of the night, and hearing in her mind the kids piping voices.
Then her eyes shifted and she slowly scanned the edge of the woods, the trees dense and lush just past the cleared space that held their quarters, the expression on her face changing into a faintly puzzled one, her brow creasing as she looked at the trees.
“Wait a minute.” Almost in slow motion, she put her hands on the sill and boosted herself over and through it, landing lightly on the slope beyond and heading towards the forest. “Wait just a damned minute.”
Cait positioned herself outside the door to the junior’s quarters, taking up a spot that let her watch through the window without being seen.
She had never lived inside it, and to be honest she viewed now and had viewed then these not quite adults as sometimes tiresome people in the midst of a transition she had already made through circumstance earlier in her life before she’d joined the tribe.
She’d come into the Amazons already with her first kills under her belt, with a trackers knowledge fully developed, already a hunter, already a fighter – she’d been made a full warrior after the first moon she’d been with the Amazons after Pony and the rest had taken her measure.
With Xena’s stamp of approval on her almost unneeded, she’d proven herself on her very first hunt with them taking down an adult male boar with her short knife, close quarters in a blast of angry squeals and grunts and a shower of blood as she’d cut it’s throat in an easy, quicksilver motion, standing up and wiping her blade down to their shocked and admiring stares as it kicked out it’s death shudder between her braced legs.
Funny, actually. Xena had laughed when she’d told her about it. But that had gotten her respect and after a few rounds in the practice yard they’d bumped her and given her a wide berth and she hadn’t had to mess with the juniors after that.
Suited everyone quite well, in fact. She’d spent her time hunting and they’d left her alone, until the village had relocated here and her role had changed somewhat. She still hunted, but now she had Gabrielle to mind as well, and that was quite satisfactory as now no one else even tried to tell her what to do.
And there was Pally to enjoy. Life on a daily basis was great fun.
She returned her attention to the room, listening to what Gabrielle was saying.
She could see the queen’s back, the slight beams of sunset coming in the window and painting the bright gold of her hair and the rich tones of the cloak she had draped over her, outlining her tapered figure and giving off the faintest motes of dust.
Peering past that, Cait watched the faces as they focused on the Queen’s words, seeing a lot of apprehension and guilt, chewing of lips, furtive hand motions, sideways glances at each other.
They knew something. Gabrielle knew they did. She could hear the frank accusation in the Queens tone and saw the shift as she moved to put her hand on her knife hilt, saw the faint jerks of reaction from her audience and the sound of indrawn breaths.
Well really now. Cait smiled fondly. She knew Gabrielle wasn’t about to draw that weapon, nor use it. Even if one of the little gits was silly enough to run at her the Queen’s first instinct would be to either wrestle or box them into submission but they were too young to suspect that since Gabrielle’s martial reputation was earned honestly enough.
Lucky for them she hadn’t her staff with her.
She could see the junior of the juniors in the back there. Sali the nitwit was on her bunk, curled up like a cashew, her tousled hair just visible. Tarah was on the bunk next to her, scrunched up and angry. The other two were seated on the floor next to Sali, arms wrapped around their upraised knees, looking scared.
As she watched, Tarah half turned and made a hand gesture at them, then put her finger to her lips.
Cait saw Gabrielle’s head move slightly, and her body straightened and she knew the queen had seen the motion. Would she … ah. She moved herself as Gabrielle started forward and slid from one side of the window to the other to keep the blond woman in view, observing the confident little swagger as the queen stalked amongst the youngers.
Very different actually than she remembered from when she’d first met Gabrielle, who had more in common with those juniors than any of them could probably imagine right now as their queen lectured them in a very stern tone, deep and husky- every word shaped with care and a bards true skill.
What was she saying now? Cait listened, then frowned, as she heard her own name mentioned. Wait, what? Yes of course she’d sent her up to find Xena and she had done, and quickly, too.
Xena had been here, in the dorm when she’d found her and … what? Who had been there? She thought about coming up and into the village and past the guards… had Renas been there?
No. It had been unguarded. No one had challenged her and she hadn’t even minded so focused had she been on finding Xena and getting her down to the town to sort out the goons. So by then Renas had already been gone. Down the path?
No, Cait would have seen her - they’d have passed each other. There was only one way up or down the.. Cait thought about something, a prickle stirring the hair on the back of her neck. What had it been? Something someone had said…
A body tumbling past her, heading downstream, down slope.
Cait took one further glance into the dorm and then she turned and slid past the window, dropping around the corner of the building and along side the wall, squeezing between it and the line of trees it was build against and past the rear corner of it.
Behind that was the bathing hut, and down past that the path that led to the sheltered out house that held the toilets, built over trenches designed to compost and keep things as tidy as practical. Beyond that was the forest, the ground past the trenches moss covered and in shadow.
Cait paused and let her eyes sweep across the line of trees and the earth before them. Then she focused on two specific trees and went towards them, pausing to look at the bark on the closer of them, at a spot at shoulder level to her.
She knelt and pushed the ferny leaves aside with one hand, leaning close to the ground to examine it. Silently, she stood and then slipped between the trunks, passing out of sight and down the slope towards the far off sound of running water.
“So.” Gabrielle paused in the center of the room. “What was it that Aalene, Renas and Das found out? Someone here knows.” She sensed motion to her right and in her peripheral vision she caught Tarah shushing her age mates over in the corner.
She walked past two of the oldest of the juniors, not to be honest that much younger than she was and paused. “Ellie?”
Ellie glanced up reluctantly. “Your Majesty?”
“Where were you today?”
“Here. I didn’t want to get caught down in the market being someone’s pack mule.” Ellie said. “Ma’am.” She added, with just enough twist in her tone to transmit her resentment.
Gabrielle studied her. “Did you see any of the three of our sisters who were killed?”
“Not at all?” Gabrielle pressed a little. “Not all day? Not at breakfast, or any time?”
“I don’t hang around with the elders.” Ellie said. “Or seniors. They don’t talk to the likes of us.” She glanced around at the rest of the juniors. “We were hunting all day.”
“Were you.” Gabrielle took a seat on one of the chests the juniors kept their gear in. “For what?”
‘What were you hunting for?” Gabrielle repeated. “There’s plenty of game in the village. Cait brought in a big buck deer day before yesterday. It’s spring. Most of the animals aren’t in good pelt it’s been a rough winter. So what were you hunting for?”
“We were just hunting.”
Gabrielle slowly let her eyes travel around the room. Most of the juniors avoided her gaze, their own fastened on the floor, or the windows, or each other. A few met her eyes, theirs widened and anxious. “Calla, Trish, and Bello, you can leave the room.”
The three got up without a word and raced to the door, going out and slamming out behind them.
Gabrielle crossed her ankles and leaned back with her hands on the box. “Three times in the last few days we’ve had invaders in the village. Men who were after riches here and in our valley.”
The smell of fear intensified.
Without warning Ellie got up and bolted. She had taken a handful of steps to come past Gabrielle when the queen got up and caught her, getting her in a grip around her torso and turning, hauling her back and then throwing her back onto her bunk.
She fell hard and almost over the edge to the floor, only barely grabbing the frame of the bunk to stay on top. Then she threw herself back to her feet and paused, as Gabrielle came to face her, one hand raising to her cloak to unlatch it and let it fall free.
The fabric slithered to the floor and Gabrielle stepped forward, spreading her boots a little for balance and letting her arms extend a little, tensing as she pinned the junior with an intent stare.
Hilarious play acting, that would not have fooled friends or family for an instant but Gabrielle was very familiar with how to use body posture and she had the very best example of it right in front of her pretty much every hour of every day. “So. How much did they offer you?”
Ellie now looked around, then back at her. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“Don’t you?” Gabrielle took another step forward, noting the bruises starting to come out from her handling of the girl. “There’s only one way those goons got up here, and that’s with the help of an Amazon. So how much?”
“I..” Ellie looked at her mates. “You all know! It.. I didn’t do anything! No one offered me anything!” Her eyes went to her left and then back to the glowering queen. “You’ve got the wrong person!”
Gabrielle took note of where she looked. “Then who did help them?” She asked. “If not you? You’re the oldest here, Ellie.”
“So? What does that mean?”
What did that mean? Ellie was one of those, Gabrielle remembered, who the minders had suggested might end up being junior, but never more. She was unskilled and awkward. “It means you should know better.” Gabrielle responded.
“Well maybe I don’t.” Ellie muttered. “Anyway even if I did, and I did know I wouldn’t tell you or anyone else.” She lifted her voice in a slightly unnatural way. “What kind of Amazon would I be if I did?”
What kind of Amazon betrays her tribe?” Gabrielle countered. “Last night many Amazons could have died at the hands of those men.”
“But they didn’t.” Tarah spoke up at last, from her corner, her very young voice echoing softly.
“No.” Gabrielle looked over her shoulder at her. “Because my six year old daughter saw them and told the guards. That’s all that stood between what happened, and what might have happened.” She looked around. “And I will be damned if that’s going to happen again.”
Xena didn’t bother tracking. She knew where she was going, and she followed an invisible path through the forest as the twilight settled over the trees, a faint mist appearing in random wispiness.
The sounds of the village faded behind her as she made her way down the slight slope that led from the back of the village through the small, scattered gardens, each marked lightly on tree bark with their owners sigils, most still barren here on the front side of spring.
An owl hooted, but she ignored it. She threaded her way through a scattering of rounded stones, along a thicket of bushes that would someday soon bear berries and then she paused, one hand on a tree branch as she abruptly remembered leaving Solari behind.
Well. Xena shrugged faintly, then she went on, her ears picking up the sound of the creek ahead of her. Solari would either catch up, or wait, or just go to dinner. She could find out what Paladia saw when she got back.
She could smell the water, and under her boots the ground was getting damp, but she could see the debris around the trees that showed where the water level had been, and now had retreated.
That was good news, at least. Xena went a bit slower, not wanting to slip on the rocks, as she saw the motion of the creek ahead of her and around her, scattering through the bushes were the tiny sounds of night hunting animals, just coming out to start their search for food.
It smelled strongly of moss. She reached the edge of the creek and turned right to walk along side it, moving downstream along the muddy shore, sticks and bits of flotsam and jetsam tossed up along the path where the flood had been just the other night.
Just last night. Xena remembered the squelching sound of her boots moving through the overflow and she pondered a bit whether the flooding should have subsided so quickly. She had thought the levels were rising just that morning, hadn’t she?
“Don’t look gift horses in the ass, Xena.” She remarked to herself, climbing over a fallen tree and moving down closer to the edge of the creek, which rushed along in more or less its usual bed, carrying some random debris along in it’s current as it moved along.
She reached the spot where she could see the fallen tree on the far side where the boat had hung up, and past that, she could see the edge in the rock face where the cave was.
The cave. That damn cave. With a faint grimace, she detoured to her left and entered the water, wincing a little as it soaked through the leather of her boots with a definite icy chill. The force of the current was considerable, and as she continued to cross she felt it shove against her knees, and then her thighs.
The rocks underfoot were slippery. Now she wished she’d taken one of Gabrielle’s staffs with her to negotiate the rapids, hoping against hope she’d keep her balance and not get her ass washed down the creek and end up with bruises all over her.
Of course. Xena pondered this. She could claim they were from the fight. After all she’d jumped into the middle of two dozen soldiers hadn’t she?
She leaned forward and held her arms out for balance, moving one boot ahead and then the other as the creek surged against her and the twilight continued to fade, leaching the color from the surrounding forest and moving it from deep greens and blues to gray in her vision.
Still clear. She could see the outline of the jutting rock wall that hid the entrance to the cave and she made for it, carefully grabbing a limb sticking out into the water and edging around it, finding a cascade of rocks just past it that needed climbing over.
Yes, she remembered the spot. She pulled herself around the rocks and then came to where the wall came down to the water, leaving only a small ledge to climb up onto after the flood had taken out most of the bank.
She regarded it. The creek was still up to her thighs.
She moved along a few steps to her right and then she crouched, letting the water come up to her hips before she shoved away from the bottom of the creek and emerged up into the air, sending a splash of water to hit the rock and several small animals flying in every direction as she landed on the small bit of land, catching her balance and grabbing the stone.
The entrance to the cave, tiny and ragged was to her left. She edged over and then knelt beside it, once again looking inside it’s opening so full of shadows. “Why am I here in the damn dark again?” She asked herself plaintively. “Hey Xena, how about bringing..oh, say your flint with you.”
But it was so damp, it probably would have been a waste of time anyway. She eased inside and waited for her eyes to adjust, the shadows morphing from a muddy haze to sharp grays and blacks as she blinked a few times. The entry, as it had the other night, smelled of use and humanity.
No animal smells, and the stench from the previous time had also faded, now replaced with the smell of old fire, the acrid sharpness of burned wood, the mud outside. She could hear no motion inside, and after a long moment of listening, she crawled further, the stone walls brushing her shoulders.
Hard to say really what was driving her. She just had a sense there was something to find in the cave, and she kept moving slowly forward, past the narrow entry into the larger space she’d sensed before.
High enough for her to sit, and she did, pulling her wet boots up under her as she studied the space. It did bear traces of habitation. There were stoppered gourds in one corner, some scraps of parchment, and above her, on the ceiling she could see some pictographs, somewhat smudged and indistinct.
On the far side of the open space she could see a pallet, crudely lashed together, and past that there was another opening, inky dark. She drew in a breath, tasting the air, but she could feel nothing brushing against her, no scent from the opening other than stone and mud.
No fresh air, no sense that it went anywhere. She’d half thought that perhaps she’d find a passage through here, and signs that men had used it.
But no. There wasn’t really space for them. There was hardly space for her to sit here. Just to prove her point Xena crawled over to the far side and felt past the opening, finding another wall behind it, a small extra space that was empty save something tiny and square that met her fingers as she searched it.
With an unsatisified sigh, she retreated, casting her eyes around the small cave one last time before she squirmed outside, back into the open night, acknowledging the profound sense of relief as she got herself out of the cave and tried not to think about the times when she hadn’t. “Brrrr.”
She turned and sat in the entrance, letting her boots extend over the edge of the creek, looking across it’s surface to the far side and just sitting and thinking. It was, at least, quiet here and she could sort out the wild scattering of facts none of which seemed to add up to anything.
Maybe she should just go home. She glanced down at the square object in her hand, and turned it over in her fingers, a mud covered, dirt smeared, plain wooden box.
It rattled, faintly. She could feel something moving inside as she shook it. Idly, she opened the top of it, expecting to find a pebble inside, perhaps left by one of the kids.
To her surprise, it wasn’t. She tilted the box over and let the contents fall into the palm of her other hand, the metal object landing flat in the shadows. “Huh.”
It was a ring. Xena set the box down and picked the ring up and examined it, a relatively plain hammered circle with a faint crosshatch pattern set in it, but no other adornment. It was worn, a bit, on the inside, and not quite round, one side slightly flattened.
She went back to look at the box again, reaching down to wash it off in the creek water before bringing it back up to where she could see it better.
The inside had a piece of cloth in it, and she removed it, smoothing the wet fabric out and putting it on her thigh. It was crumpled up, a scrap of linen that she figured had been wrapped around the ring to protect it. Otherwise, the box was empty and had no markings on the inside.
What did it mean? Xena held the ring between her thumb and forefinger and lifted it up to look through it, then she slid it over her little finger, where it loosely fit.
With a faint shake of her head, she took it off and wrapped it back up in the cloth, putting it back in the box and closing it.
Then she put the box in her belt pouch and folded her arms over her chest, crossing her boots at the ankle as she pondered all the things that so far, ultimately didn’t add up letting the cool air, and the rippling water and the starlight give her space to think.
Cait could see the marks of a track ahead of her, made by bodies not skilled as hers was in moving through the forest. There were branches broken, and twigs snapped, tree bark marked by the repeated placing of hands to catch balance as someone passed.
She walked in the shadow of those footsteps, following the path through the woods, pausing to regard a spot where people had sat together, far enough from the main part of the village to be reasonably sure of privacy.
A place to sit and talk? She could see the ground there by a fallen log patted down under soft boots, a piece of bark removed and smoothed flat, it’s surface faintly stained from the bottom of mugs into darkened rings.
The path went on past it and she continued to follow it, now moving through a rocky patch where the stones were covered in moss whose scent filled the air as she picked her way through it, the tree trunks slimming and condensing, growing narrow enough for her to have to slide sideways past them.
Which she did, her short, slim stature slighter than many of the juniors who had left traces behind them, broken branches and scraped areas of bark, on one a tangle of dark hair caught in passing.
Cait felt a bit of disdain, really. Even the newest of the juniors should be better trained than that, she mused, as she stepped up onto a long, fallen tree and walked down the length of it with easy balance. Dori certainly would have done a better job.
She got to the end of the tree and paused before stepping down off it, simply standing and breathing in, as the slightest of sounds came to her out of place.
The twilight faded around her and she waited for her eyes to adjust to the shadows, thinking about the sound and trying to sort out in her head what she thought it was.
Animal hunting? Possibly. One of the juniors? Not likely, since she was sure Gabrielle had them all wrangled. Benny and his fellows had the grungy visitors under control. One of the forest dwellers, perhaps?
Cait remembered that Warin seemed to like wandering about, but she knew he’d been with his siblings and the rest of the children getting some dinner.
Silently she stepped down and went over some leaf covered ground, deserting the path now in favor of going in the direction she felt the sound had come from. It wasn’t repeated, but she noted the other small night sounds had faded and that served as it’s own warning.
She was glad she had her sword with her. Now as full dark settled over the forest she moved through it like any other hunting creature, her hands going to bring up the hood to cover her pale hair, then settling back at her side, her left hand now holding one of her daggers.
She curled her fingers around the hilt, blade facing down along her thigh as she placed her boots carefully, making no sound.
She drew in a breath again, and paused, detecting the raw, sharp smell of new hemp, making her brows hike in surprise, and she slowed in caution, sliding between two large trees as she felt the rocky ground slope gently upward.
There was a bit of an outcropping ahead of her and she carefully approached it, moving around to the side to see if she could get to see past it, smelling the hemp more strongly along with the mineral smell of both water and rock. She was aware of the creek a small distance away, as she put one hand on the outcropping and leaned towards it.
Her ears strained, listening for a breath or a heartbeat of something living, and she lifted herself up to get her eyes over the edge of the top rock, focusing on a thin dark line across it’s surface that wasn’t natural.
She got a knee up on the rock and moved upward, pressing her body against the stone, knife at the ready as she got up to the top of the escarpment and could see past it, catching a view of the rush of water from the corner of her eye as she got close enough to the dark line to see it clearly.
The hemp she’d smelled, in fact. The rope criss crossed the rock, wrapped around it, and knotted into cracks with the far end dropping down the slope, its length bisected with the roundness of hand knots as far as she could see.
A rope for climbing. Disappearing off into the rush of the creek, going downstream.
“Bugger.” Cait said, quietly. As she watched the rope vibrated, scraping against the rock and creating the creaking, thrumming sound she’d heard from the trail. Remaining still, she stared down the length of it, drawing in a breath as she saw a hand come out of the creek and pull at one of the knots.
Gabrielle sat back down on the box, watching them. “Well?”
She could feel the resentment in the room and had to wonder briefly what the genesis of it was. These were really just kids, who… She paused and thought about that for a moment, not bothered by the silence around her. Were they all just kids?
Some were. The newbies, in the back. But most she realized were older than she had been when she’d started traveling with Xena.
Ellie in fact, was not much younger than she was, a junior for years without real prospect of moving up in the Amazon ranking order where she had come in, head first, unknowing and ignorant at the top of it.
She’d never been a junior. Gabrielle’s lips twitched at a brief moment of self knowledge. She’d never been a senior for that matter. She’d gone from a stranger on a path to holding caste right and that not by her own skills but by Xena’s fist right up until she’d been old and strong enough to hold her own.
Or actually, until she’d been clueful enough to really fake it.
A shepherds kid plucked by the Fates and dumped into a place they all wanted to be in. Or thought they did. Gabrielle regarded them all wryly.
Xena had once said, she was only in charge because she never wanted anyone else to tell her what to do, but then the downside of that was having to tell everyone else what to do. “You know what it’s like to be me?” She said, in a conversational tone. “Wanna know?”
Confused, the juniors all looked at each other, surprised at this turn.
“I’m guessing you all would like nothing more than to be me.” Gabrielle folded her hands in her lap. “I get to be Queen, right? I get a nice house, and all the perks, and best of all I get to tell everyone what to do.” She let her gaze travel around the room, the faintest of smiles on her face. “It’s cool, right?”
“Sure.” Ellie spoke up, since no one else seemed likely to.
“Any idea what it feels like knowing you’re responsible for everyone?” Gabrielle asked. “You know what you felt like a minute ago when I asked you what was going on, because you’re the eldest?” She looked directly at Ellie. “That feel fair?”
“No.” Ellie said. “Its not the same thing. It’s not my fault I’m stuck here.”
Ah. “Y’know, a lot of the time that’s exactly how I felt about having the Amazons be a part of my life.” Gabrielle said. “It’s not my fault I’m stuck here.”
They stared at her. “What?” Ellie said, after a moment. “What are you talking about?”
“Bummer, huh?” Their queen lamented. “Most of the time, I really don’t’ want to be here. Don’t’ want to be the queen. Really don’t’ want to be in charge.” She said. “For a long time I wasn’t, right? Pushed it off on Ephiny who is, I might add, a lot better at being in charge than I am.”
Tarah edged forward hesitantly. “Are you kidding?”
Gabrielle shook her head. “Nope. I have to work like crazy at being the queen. I’m really kinda feckless? I’d much rather be off on some trail somewhere with Xena hunting for blackberries. I don’t really want to be in charge of anything except dinner.”
Ellie blinked. “You don’t?”
She had them. She could feel the focus. “You know what you all have that I don’t?” She slid the words into the bewildered silence. “You can walk away from this place and make your life what you want it to be.” Her eyes traveled idly over them. “I can’t.”
“What does that mean?” Tarah came over and sat down on one of the empty pallets nearby, her hands clasping the edges of it. “Walk away?”
Gabrielle regarded her for a moment. “I wasn’t born an Amazon. There was a lot and still is I don’t know about being an Amazon. But because I hold the right of caste in this Amazon nation, and because I will have to pass that right, one thing I do know about is that when you come of age you get to choose if you want to become an Amazon or not.”
“Before I pass my right to Dori, she gets to choose if she wants to stay here and take it.” Gabrielle clarified, in a slightly wry tone. “If not, as someone who was born into the tribe, she gets a stake and the opportunity to go out in the world with it, and make what she wants out of her life, where she wants to live it, even if that means she ends up feeding Cyrene’s chickens down in the town helping her cousins run that inn.”
She gently moved her ring around her finger. “You all also can do that if you want. You don’t have to stay here, as a junior, or become a senior, or spend your life in this village being a part of the tribe.” She paused to look at all of them looking at her. “You all knew that right?”
They hadn’t. She could see it, feel it, sense it, in a way that her native storyteller’s instincts had been honed to detect and she acknowledged a gust of internal clarity as she remembered hearing the minders admit something she should have paid closer attention to.
A discontinuity, between tradition and reality, buzzing by to bite her in the ass. “Okay.” Gabrielle lifted a hand in acknowledgment as she felt the energy shift completely. “Before we go down that rabbit hole, can we please just get what’s been going on here on the table?”
Sali hiked herself up on her pallet, and pushed her hair back out of her face. “I’ll tell you.” She said, in a slightly hoarse voice. “I might as well.”
Tarah had half turned at the sound, then she swiveled back towards Gabrielle. “We all should talk.” She glanced past her at Ellie. “Right?”
Oh boy. Gabrielle crossed her boots and sighed internally. “Should have brought that wineskin with me.” She muttered under her breath. “It’s gonna be one of those days.”
Xena felt the evening quiet settling around her and she allowed it to bring a sense of peace as well. There was something about being alone, surrounded by the wild that touched someplace deep inside her, allowing the aggravation of the day slip away.
She knew, of course, that she wasn’t really in the wild, and not really alone – a hearty yell would bring someone running, far off at the back of the village though she was, but it was peaceful enough here to make her at least imagine it and she did.
She used the dell near their cabin home for the same purpose, just a quiet, hidden place she could just take a moment and chill out in. Nothing really fancy, certainly nothing comfortable, like here, a little cold, a little wet, a bit of a stick poking her in the thigh.
She regarded her hands, resting on her knees, seeing the few, faint dark lines that were nicks she’d gotten in the fight, impacts against armor, or the scrape of wood from the wagon. She knew if she closed her fingers into fists, they would ache a little from it but she didn’t, leaving them lie against her leg.
There’d been too much fighting already today.
She thought about Dori, recalling the uncomfortable sting of having to tell her little one she couldn’t do something being asked of her, feeling the sting again, a grimace of the soul whose pain was repeated as she heard the piping voice in her mind, hearing the disappointed outrage in it.
Go get her, Boo!
Crazy, that Dori thought she could… Xena frowned. Well, after what she’d heard, and what she’d already seen in her short life was it so surprising? She regarded the gray outlined branches spreading over head from the tree leaning over the bank.
Eh. Nevermind that. Gabrielle would sit down with her, after this was all done and over, and tell her the story of it and then. Maybe Dori would get it. Or she’d think it was more of the weird gush stuff and she’d forget it, for a while.
Xena smiled, briefly. Not forever. At some point, when she was older, they’d have to sit down and talk about it and maybe by then she’d have figured out what to say. She heard the flutter of a bats wings and looked up, to see the dark outline of the night hunter land on a branch overhead, pausing to arrange it’s membrane wings and yawn.
She could see its teeth, in outline and spared it a brief moment of envy as it looked forward to nothing more than a night’s search for food, all unaware of how lucky it was in the lack of complication in its life.
She was pissed off about the three Amazons. Of all the senseless stupidity of the last few days that seemed to her to be the most senseless and she wished, again, that she could just turn the sun back one day, and get today to do over, knowing what she knew right now.
Starting with the shrine. She looked off into the shadows, imagining in her mind what she would have done differently, finding a way to change the attitudes of the followers of Ares, to keep the kids wrangled and not loose in the forest, to send her army down across the river to head off the Athenians.
Would she? Could she have?
Xena exhaled. “Yeah.” She mused aloud. “I didn’t take those bastards seriously. This is on me.” She sat forward and rested her elbows on her knees. “I let this happen.”
No one would point at her. But that didn’t stop her from pointing at herself. “I let this all get ahead of me.” She spoke to the water, accepting the responsibility, and the weight of knowing that if she’d done better, those that had died maybe wouldn’t have.
The three Amazons. The dignitary. Maybe even the oracle. Xena swallowed a moment of profound disappointment in herself, knowing there was no way to get that back, and now the future trouble, and the sadness of a little girl who would never know her mother rested squarely on her shoulders.
The one thing she’d done right was stop the fighting, and even that had cost a score of lives of men that hadn’t had to die. Had died for no reason, other that to prove her point, validate her reputation, salvage the coming bloodshed that now, at least, hadn’t happened.
But it hadn’t really needed to come to that. She could have stopped it much earlier.
Peh. Xena got up and brushed herself off, glancing both ways as she considered a route back over the creek and a return to the village. She’d go back and get Gabrielle, and figure out what they were going to do to put a patch on the mess, and limit the damage.
Her mess to clean up. “Or.” She put her hands on her hips and let out an exasperated breath. “My circus, my monkeys.”
As she was about to step into the chilly water, she paused, cocking her head as she heard, in the distance downstream, a blood curdlng yell.
Without much thought she continued her motion, going waist deep in the water then throwing herself forward into the current, letting it take her into its power and a fast surge ahead.
Cait pressed herself flat to the rock and watched, as a tall, brawny figure slowly pulled themselves up the rope, out of the creek’s fast wash, putting a creaking strain on the ropes that was squeaking loudly in one ear.
She brought her left arm up with her knife in her hand and studied the lines, trying to decide where to cut them that would end up removing this unexpected threat in the most efficient possible manner.
For it was a threat, she completely understood that, but a very limited one with her here, having found it. She had time to decide how to kill him and when, to make the least mess before she might take the remainder of the rope webbing back to the village and display it.
How long had it been here? It was weathered a bit, and had moss stains on it, but the rope was rather new, enough so that she could smell the sharpness of it’s making and she reasoned that the entry into the village of all of those unexpected rotters was now explained.
The creek emptied out down near the town, along the back side, right into the river. All they’d had to do was make their way up it’s course, and climb up the rope so helpfully placed, with Amazon knotting, there to help them come up the steep parts that would need to be scaled.
“Hmph.” Cait scratched her nose with the hilt of her dagger. “I’m quite going to kill who did this. Far too stupid to be left alive.”
And now she would put a guard here as well, it would become a marker on the patrol route she’d developed, yes, and Xena would be pleased and perhaps would have another gate built there down at the far end of town like the one across the path up.
Cait gave a brief, brisk nod, then she snaked forward and came up over the top of the rocks, where she could be seen by the nitwad when he got far enough to pause and look up as she knew he would.
She wanted him to, so that they could look into each others eyes before she cut the rope and he fell back, the water taking him against the rocks.
Cait didn’t care for sneaky killing. She knew she would want someone who was trying to kill her to be up front about it, person to person like and she accorded the people she killed the same courtesy. If the git had climbed all the way up from the town, then at least he’d put some effort into the thing after all.
She paused and considered that. He had put effort into it, now hadn’t he? Was he just another stupid man chasing after some market tale of jewels as the others had been? Surely the capture of all the soldiers and the clearing of the square had put the kibosh on that, hadn’t it?
She saw the man come head and shoulders up out of the water, now hauling himself up hand over hand, the force of the water driving his clothing hard against him. He was wearing a typical hide jerkin and leggings and she could just see he had long, dark hair slicked wetly back from his forehead.
She tried to remember if she’d seen him in the town, but there was nothing discernable in the darkness that marked him as special in any way and then it was moot because he in fact looked up, and saw her there watching him.
He let go of the rope in surprise and fell, letting out a loud yell as he went backwards and slammed against the rocks and tumbled into the racing creek.
Not expecting so rapid an end to her stalking Cait was caught frozen for a moment, unsure of what to do, if anything. She saw him grab for a branch sticking out into the rapids and hang onto it with one hand, the rest of his body thrumming out in the current.
He was going to let go before she could get down there to do anything, but Cait sighed, sheathing her blade and then grabbing the rope to make a descent, deferring her decision for the moment.
Sure enough, looking over her shoulder she saw him lose his grip and thump, flailing against some rocks, his hands scrabbling to try and grab hold of their slick surface. “Bother.” She muttered under her breath.
He let out another scream, and then he was loose and tumbling downstream and out of her view and she paused, head cocked to listen. She heard a splash, then the sound of wood cracking, and she held on, braced against the rocks as that was followed by just the roar of the water.
“Hmph.” Cait climbed back up the rope and got up back onto the escarpment, turning around and sorting the ropes out, drawing her knife again as she studied them. “Now, where was I?”
She put her hand on the lower section of the ropes and leaned over, then paused again, jerking her hand back as she felt weight come onto the strand again, and it twanged tight, scraping over the rocks. “Damn.” With an exasperated sigh, she whet her knife on the rocks and then started to cut it through. “Let’s just get this over with.”
It was dark and cold and he was falling, crashing against the side of the partial cliff he’d finally reached and been climbing up and he knew he was going to die now. The rocks hurt as he smacked into them and he felt his shoulder go numb as he hit a rock with it.
He wished it was just over. He could hear the water coming much closer and he closed his eyes just in time to be grabbed out of the air and he flailed around in confusion as his body was yanked and thrown into a bush whose branches cut and punctured his skin.
He screamed in fear. Then something large and warm shoved up against him and held him in place and he wasn’t falling anymore, but it hurt and now the chill of the water hit him again and soaked his hips as his lower body submerged back into the creek.
He felt something moving, and was terrified, sure it was a river monster or some god driven thing or…
The man twisted around and felt leather touch his fingertips. “Oh!” He yelped in surprise. “Who..?”
“Hold still.” A low, yet female voice came out of the darkness. “Stop wriggling around before you send both of us down that damn waterfall.”
He froze, his entire body shivering. “What are you?” He asked, voice quavering.
Xena shook the wet hair out of her eyes and took a better hold of the rope. “Depends who you ask.” She could feel the force of the current against her legs, and her boots started to slip. “Grab that rope. I can’t hold both of us.”
“What rope? I can’t see anything.” The man answered nervously. “I let go of it.” He said. “I knew it would get dark too fast and I… anyway, just let me go.” He said. “Please.”
Xena counted under her breath. “Reach out in front of you. Extend your hands.” She growled over the sound of the water. “Grab on to the damn rope.”
He stuck his hands out and in surprise, felt the roughness of the soaked, coarse rope he’d climbed up once again against his skin and in reflex, he closed his hands over it. “Okay.” He gripped it firmly, blinking the river water out of his eyes and pulling himself ahead a little bit.
Xena felt him move forward, and she got her boots back under her, finding a bit of rock on the edge of the creek to brace against. “Now.” She said. “Never mind who I am. Who the hades are you, and what are you doing here?” She flexed her fingers around the rope she had hold of, just ahead of him.
A vibration worked it’s way down, and she felt it.
“I. There’s something up there.” The man said. “I was almost up at the top and I saw.. it was staring at me!”’
Xena felt the vibration again. She drew in a breath but it was too late, and she felt the shock as the rope parted and then they were both released back against the side of the creek as the man tumbled free and fell backwards against her.
It was too much. Xena lost her grip on the tree limb and then they were both hauled back by the current and going downstream. She straightened out and kept the man in sight as they rolled through the rapids, managing to get a hand on his belt as a ruffle of water came over their heads.
Gonna be one of those days.
The juniors were now gathered in a rough semi circle around her. Gabrielle had pulled her boots up and had her legs crossed under her, her elbows resting on her knees, hands clasped together, her cloak retrieved and once again settled over her shoulders.
“That’s what they told us.” Sali had just finished. “They thought we were … “
“They thought they’d gain the favor of the gods if they helped us.” Tarah was seated on the pallet nearest Gabrielle, her hands gripped in her lap. “And then there was Jax.” Her face flushed a little.
Ellie rolled her eyes. “He’s dumb.” She said. “But the rest of them.. “ Her face was also flushed, and she avoided meeting Gabrielle’s eyes. “They said they’d split the stuff they found with us, and then we …”
“And then you’d what?” Gabrielle asked, in a gentle voice. “What did you really think was going to happen? They’d just be allowed to take what they wanted?”
“They were supposed to just get in and get a few candlemarks in and get out!” Ellie said, in a burst of exasperated speech. “No one was supposed to know! No one goes into that back area! No one cares about it!”
“It was only supposed to be four of them.” Tarah explained. “That’s all. Just those guys, the ones we met up with after the night we went to the shrine.” She said. “They said they were here for that, and it was a secret.”
Gabrielle eyed them. “They weren’t supposed to tell anyone?” She hazarded.
“No. That was the whole thing, you know?” Sali said. “They were just kids.. like we are! They were willing to take a risk and all that and..” She shifted in discomfort and looked at the edge of the pallet she was lying on. “They were cool.”
“Uh huh.” Gabrielle scratched her jaw thoughtfully. “But they did tell someone.”
“No they..” Tarah glanced around. “It wasn’t like that. The first time they came up they found… they had some nuggets and I guess.. well, someone saw them.”
“These?” Gabrielle opened the torn and ratty bag and spilled the gold into her hand, raising it, as the torchlight in the room reflected off the rocks on her palm.
Ellie gasped, and half stood. “They found those!” She glared at Tarah. “You never said that!” She said, in an accusing tone. “That’s gold! No one ever found that here! I’da heard because… “
“Because Renas was always wanting it.” Gabrielle finished, closing her hand on the nuggets and letting it drop to her knee. “They said it was from here?”
“Jax said it was.” Tarah was now almost brick red. “I was going to tell everyone I just didn’t have time it’s been so crazy.”
“Liar. You just wanted it for yourself.” Ellie spat at her. “We all know what the deal was. You were going off with him.”
Gabrielle untangled herself and stood up. “Hold on.” She tossed the nuggets on the box behind her. “First of all, those weren’t found around here.” She stated, flatly.
“Jax said he found them here.” Tarah lifted her head. “And so yeah, now that we know that’s all cool, I was going to go with him.” She looked around the room defensively. “And it wasn’t for them, so you can suck an egg. He said he lost those nights ago and didn’t care!”
The juniors jumped hotly to their feet in a chorus of argument, and Gabrielle felt a headache coming on. She drew in a deep breath to yell, then paused as she heard rapid steps coming up to the door, and then the sound of it opening.
Gabrielle turned to find Cait in the doorway, utterly drenched, a coil of rope draped over her shoulders and neck stained with moss and mud. “Cait!” She said, in surprised reflex. “What happened?”
Her guard entered and closed the door behind her, water dripping on the floor of the junior’s quarters as the juniors inside stared at her with wide eyes all of them now silent as the slim, blond warrior stalked over to stand next to their queen.
“Sorry to interrupt.” Cait said. “But I’ve found this, and thought you should know right away.” She indicated the rope. “It was tied up near the creek, you see, and anyone could have climbed right up it.” Her pale eyes slowly traveled over the group in the room. “Someone in fact was.”
The girls all looked over at Tarah.
Gabrielle lifted both hands. “Hold on.” She said. “Where was this?”
Cait’s pale brows, stained somewhat darker with mud, lifted a bit at the attitude in the room. “Back at the very end of the village, actually.” She said. “Where the creek goes over that bit of rock, you know? It was tied around the rock and went down the slope.”
“What did you do?” Tarah asked. “Did you..”
“Well, I cut the rope, obviously.” Cait told her. “Someone was on it and they went right back down.” She turned her attention back to Gabrielle. “Now it seems we have to add that bit to the patrol routing.” She concluded. “Very annoying.”
“You cut the rope? That was Jax!” Tarah yelled suddenly. “He was coming here!”
Cait regarded her calmly. “So you knew him then?” She smiled without any humor. “Screamed a bit like a child, actually.”
“Bitch!” Tarah launched herself at Cait, pulling her belt knife in one hand. “You insane little creep I’m going to ..”
Gabrielle moved at the same time to get between them, getting a hand on Tarah and closing her fist on her leathers as she put her back to Cait. “Hold on!” She grabbed the girls knife hand and clenched her fingers as hard as she could, her body twisting to hold the girl back.
The juniors surged forward, then hesitated, as Cait drew her sword, edging past Gabrielle and moving smoothly between her and the rest of them, the torchlight glittering off her blade, and the colorless ice of her eyes, as she tossed the coil of rope to one side.
“Stop!” Gabrielle bellowed. “Everybody just STOP!”
It was cold and painful and very full of rocks and Xena had all she could do to keep her head above water while she clenched her fingers around the belt of their erstwhile invader as she twisted against the current and the downhill slope.
“Ahhh!” The man let out a terrified scream.
“Close your mouth!” Xena yanked him around and got them both going feet first as she heard the waterfall approaching. “Just relax!”
“Relax?” The man yelled. “I roped up that fall and it almost killed me!”
“It’s not that bad.” Xena took a deep breath. “Hold your breath!”
They slid suddenly downward, not directly down but on a slope as the creek moved in it’s bed through the cut it made in the stone of the mountain, surrounding them both with a roar of thrummingly cold water that pummeled them on all sides as they plunged.
Xena felt the impending impact and she relaxed her body, as her boots hit the surface of the water and she went under, jerked to an abrupt halt as it shallowed out sooner than she expected and the jar sent her tumbling forward, with the intruder with her.
It was shallow enough for her to stand and after a twisting, water up the nose moment she managed to get upright again, whirling as she realized the man’s belt had come loose in her hand and he was no longer near her. “Hey!”
She got a glimpse of him, face down, nearby.
With a curse she swam through the rippling water and got hold of him before he could float free, grabbing both of his boots and twisting hard to bring him face up, shoving him towards the banks now moving rapidly past them.
She moved up and grabbed his arms, kicking against the current until she was close enough to the bank to reach out and grab a branch, hauling both of them into a thick clump of leaves and ducking under them.
The tree had sunken roots and she got hold of them, hooking her legs around them to free her hands to position the man, reaching up to shove her fingers against his throat to see if he was still alive.
A faint flutter rewarded her touch, but it was faint and he wasn’t breathing, and this close she could smell blood and see a gush of darkness covering one side of his head. With an exasperated sigh she hauled herself up out of the water into the lower branches of the tree, then she turned and grabbed his tunic, hauling the almost literally dead weight up after her.
Not really sure why she was doing it. The jackass had been trying his best to break into the Amazon village and no one, not anyone, would have put blame on her for just letting his carcass float on down the creek to end up in the swampy delta down below the town.
But here she was, yanking him through the branches, catching his limbs and fabric on them as she scrambled up away from the water and onto true, solid land full of ferns and mossy rocks, slanted and uncomfortable, full of the smell of garbage and debris.
She dropped to her knees and hauled him over, rolling his body around so that he was face down, his head facing downslope as she straddled him and pressed on his back with both hands several times, leaning her weight into it.
A gush of water came from his mouth, and his body convulsed under her. She pressed a few more times, and then she lifted herself up, cocking her head to listen as he twitched violently, then gasped in reflex, his chest heaving and he jerked into consciousness, gasping and coughing.
Xena rocked back and sat down, grabbing his arm and hauling him over so that he was face up as he hacked and shook, waving his hand in the air as he fought to control his body.
She coughed, herself, and spat out a mouthful of river mud, reaching up to rake the wet hair out of her eyes as she glanced around to plan her next move.
A torch flared, and she was suddenly aware of a small group of figures clustered around a central flame, halfway across the swampy flats.
The man rolled onto his side and threw up a gush of bile and water, sucking in air in rough and labored gasps, his body jerking and lurching as he coughed helplessly and retched, his fingers clutching the moss covered ground.
Xena flicked a bit of river weed from her arm, taking a seat higher up on the slope, hiking up one knee and resting her elbow on it as she kept the small group in her peripheral vision. “Take it easy, buddy.” She advised, wishing she was anywhere else, her face twitching a little bit as the wind blew over her damp skin.
He jerked and looked over his shoulder, unable to see her in the darkness. “Who..” He paused to cough again. “Who are you?” He asked, tentatively. “I can’t see you.”
Xena could see his eyes, looking past her, head turning back and forth as though expecting her to materialize somewhere. “Your friends over there can take it from here.” She stood up, charting a course in her head back around to the town where the thought of the inn’s warm kitchen appealed to her.
Should she take the little rat with her? Put him in jail? Xena regarded the figure. He was young, tall and angular, with the rangy body of a half grown horse and the awkwardness of one.
Hades with it. She scanned the forest and started around him, pausing when he jerked, hearing her move. “Relax. I’m not gonna do anything to ya.”
“No, I..” He looked up at her, and at that moment the moon came out from behind the clouds and outlined the swamp in silver gray, and the woman standing at his side in equal parts light and shadow. “Oh!” He rolled up onto his knees and pushed his hair out of his eyes. “Are you… Xena?”
The group of men had started forward, seeing her now moonlit outline. “Yes.” Xena told him. “And before your buddies get here, I’m taking off. Don’t try climbing up there again.”
“Wait.” He pushed himself to his knees, then to his feet. Standing, he was as tall as she was and looked a bit less like a drowned rat. “You helped me.” He said. “I just want to say thank you.”
Xena regarded him in silence for a moment, slightly surprised. “No problem.” She glanced aside, as the others tentatively approached, holding the torch out ahead of them. They were all armed, but no one looked like they were going to get any funny ideas about drawing on her and she relaxed a trifle.
“Look, it’s Xena.” The man addressed them. “The rope broke. She helped me.” He continued. “I would have drowned!” He coughed a little. “I kinda did.”
“We saw it come down.” One of the men edged closer, watching Xena warily as he held his hand up. “I don’t think it broke.”
Xena walked over and paused as they all scrambled back. “Take it easy.” She repressed a grin. “I just want to see it.” She held out her hand and the man cautiously held the end of the rope out to her. She took it and saw what he meant; the edges were clean cut as though by a knife.
Probably had been. Xena rubbed her thumb against it. “Well.” She said. “It didn’t belong where it was.” It turned in her fingers, as the torch fluttered nearby and burnished them in gold. “So it seems someone removed it.”
“Someone cut it.” Jax said.
“Someone did.” Xena agreed. “Now I have to go and find out who put it there.” She looked around at all of them. “Lucky this is all that got cut.”
“We weren’t going to hurt anyone.” Jax told her, folding his long arms around his body as the wind picked up a little.
“No, you weren’t.” Xena smiled wryly at him. “What did you think you were doing up there?” She asked, almost as an afterthought. “Didn’t you.. “ She regarded the group. “Kids get the message?” She drew her dagger and cut the end of the rope off. “This mountain’s off limits.”
The man looked at the newly cut end, then he dropped the rope, giving Jax a sideways look. “Yeah, we heard. But he’s our friend and he wanted to go.” He admitted. “We said we’d wait for him down here.”
Xena turned her focus to her recent rescue. “Why?”
Jax looked at her apprehensively, and even though both the torch and moonlight leached color she could see he was blushing, making him seem even younger than he probably was.
He reminded her, a little, of Lyceus, and the rest of them were just as young and it reminded her suddenly of the kids they’d bumped to junior what felt now like a lifetime ago and she figured they were about the same age. “C’mon. Someone dare ya?”
He looked at the ground, then back at her. “No.” He cleared his throat a little. “There’s a girl up there I like.” He admitted, to the faint, embarrassed noises from his friends. “I wanted to see her.”
Xena regarded him. “An Amazon?” She asked, in a mildly surprised tone.
“Yeah.” He lifted his chin a little in defiance. “Not one of the mean ones.” He amended quickly when he saw her smile in response. “She’s really nice.” He ignored the rolled eyes of his companions. “We’re from Athos. We came for the market, and I met her there.”
He looked up at her shyly. “We danced. I know it sounds stupid.”
“What’s stupid is, you lost all our stake.” The other youth said. “That’s the only reason we stuck around, Jax. You said she’d help you find it.” He looked around, the slope seeming dark and empty and forbidding as the moon disappeared behind the clouds again and threw them back into shadow.
“She would have!” Jax protested. “She said she knew someone who maybe could..” He stopped and looked at Xena. “Find it.” He finished belatedly. “She snuck us up there and we.. it was kind of a party, and we had some.. anyway, I dropped my pouch up there.”
“Our pouch.” His friend said. “Our stake, Jax. All Athos had.”
“Stake.” Xena idly twirled the bit of rope in her fingers. “What kind of stake?”
“Rough gold nuggets.” Jax admitted. “We were hoping someone could smelt them, make them into coin for a cut.”
Xena eyed them thoughtfully. Then she glanced down and fished in her belt pouch, fishing out something and holding it out to him on the palm of her hand. “This yours?” She moved a step closer, so the torchlight could shine on it.
Jax inhaled. “Wher’d you..” He reached, out, then hesitated. “That’s my granddams.”
“Hey you were holding out on us?” His friend said, in outrage.
Xena extended her hand, with the small box and it’s ring towards him. “G’wan, take it.” She said, watching his face color vividly again. “What was your game, kid? Were you gonna offer that to her?”
He closed his fingers over the box, his fingernails lightly scratching her palm as he lifted it and pulled it back towards him, shutting the lid and his fist over it, then tucking his hand under his arm.
“We told him it was dumb!”
“He’s crazy. I told him he was. He’s not getting nothing but a kick in the ass from her!”
Would he lie or tell the truth? Xena waited, watching him as he watched her. In a sevenday full of circular stories and lies, it would be novel if he didn’t lie but she expected him to, here in front of his friends, in the dark, in the cold, in front of her.
He looked up and met her eyes, his own a clear tint that in daylight might be hazel. “Yeah I was.” He said, ignoring the jeers of his friends. “Even if they found me and killed me for it.” He paused and took a breath. “So are you going to do that? I know you can. I saw you fighting.”
He felt it was pretty brave of him to say that. He’d told the truth, and he’d seen her fighting all right, huddled with the rest of the travelers behind some boxes when she’d come through the lines and just fought them all, by herself, bloody and ferocious.
She’d scared the soldiers senseless, then. He’d heard them. Scared them, and thrilled them at the same time and standing here now he sort of got it.
Xena was scary. You could see, just looking at her, how dangerous she was. There was something about her eyes that made you understand that this was someone who could judge you, and decide what to do about you and there was nothing you could really do about it.
But as he looked at her there was also something understanding and kind in her expression that made him think it was going to be okay, and that, in some way she knew what he was about and yeah, she got it too.
Xena grinned at him. “Nah.” She said. “I’ve killed enough people today, but thanks for the offer.” She indicated the lower slope. “C’mon. I’ll take you up the front way and you can ask without breaking your neck.”
The jeers cut off abruptly and the four young men stared at her, as she extended a hand to Jax.
“Seriously.” Xena assured him. “C’mon.”
Hesitantly he unclasped his arms and reached out to take her hand and responded as she started off towards the swampy marshlands, towing him along heading to the estuary where the creek met the river, and the track that would eventually lead them back into Amphipolis.
“You.. want the torch?” One of the boys asked, after a few minutes of awkward silence of them tromping through the soggy grassy mud.
“Nah, don’t need it.”
“Oh.” Jax eyed the shoulderblades and sword hilt he could just see in the light coming from behind him. “I guess you know this place pretty good, huh?”
“I was born here.”
“Oh!” He paused. “So uh.. you really know all about those Amazons, right?”
“More than I ever wanted to.”
“Oh.” Jax said. “Is that good or bad?”
“Depends on what day it is.”
Gabrielle pushed Tarah down on the pallet and turned squarely to face the rest of them, spreading her arms out as Cait cleared her throat behind her. “Don’t make me go get my staff.” She warned. ‘Cait, put that thing away.”
“Now really.” Cait did sheath her sword. “Your majesty, I do think I’m supposed to be the one guarding you, not the other way round.”
Gabrielle exhaled, scrubbing her hair back out of her eyes with one impatient hand. “Let’s talk about that later. Right now, everyone just SIT DOWN.” She let her voice lift and deepen, looking around at the group channeling as much of Xena’s glare as she could on short notice.
It worked. The juniors all backed off and sat down on their pallets, as their aggravated queen straightened up and Cait went over to a chair near the door and took a seat on it, her pale hair stained an almost brown with clay and moss colored streaks across her face.
“Please don’t do stupid things like that.” Gabrielle said, after a moments pause. “Life is too short to want to waste yours on pointless grandstanding.”
“it’s not pointless.”Tarah was only seated by sheer will, her face still twisted in anger.
“It’s pointless.” Gabrielle overrode her. “Do you want to die?” She asked. “If you do that again, Cait will kill you and what does that get either of us?”
right.” Cait commented from her seat, hiking one knee
up over the other and lacing her fingers around it.
“You all think it’s a bit of a joke really? Putting ropes up to let people come up here? All this rubbish? It’s not a joke. It’s not funny.”
Gabrielle paused and looked over at her. “No, it’s not.”
There was a moment of silence. “Did you really cut that rope?” Tarah asked, finally.
“I did.” Cait confirmed instantly. “And if I hadn’t, and he’d climbed on up into the rocks I’d have killed him then.” She stared intently at Tarah. “That’s my job, you see.”
“You’re crazy.” Ellie said. “You’re fricking insane. Everyone knows it.”
Cait didn’t look insulted. She merely looked over at Gabrielle, head cocked slightly in question.
“No.” Gabrielle smiled briefly. “Cait just has a focus and clarity most of us don’t.” She turned and regarded Ellie. “She’s not insane any more than Xena is.”
Cait smiled back, folding her arms across her chest in satisfaction, then she straightened up and then stood, drawing her sword again as steps sounded outside the junior quarters and the doorlatch worked. She yanked it open and stepped back, sliding between the incoming body and Gabrielle as naturally as breathing. “Hello!”
“Would you put that thing away?” Paladia stopped dead in the opening, holding her hands up. “Ya nutcase.”
Paladia looked past her at Gabrielle. “Hey.”
“Hey.” Gabrielle responded with a sigh.
“They wanted me to talk to Xena about something and she’s gone.” The ex renegade stated. “As in, no one can find her.”
A moment of silence. “As in, they need a TRACKER to go look?” Paladia eyed her partner meaningfully. “Cause she was in the nibs quarters and went off somewhere in the trees.”
“Right.” Cait said. “Got it.”
“Hang on.” Gabrielle closed her eyes and focused inward, feeling along that weird and ephemeral connection between her and her soulmate, feeling nothing in particular in return and finding that supremely unhelpful.
She opened her eyes again. “Okay, Cait, please go see what you can find.” She said. “You all, stay here.” She pointed at Tarah. “Tarah, please come with me to my quarters.” She motioned the reluctant junior forward. “Let’s continue this discussion after we sort this out.”
Before anyone else could protest or speak she herded Cait and Tarah out the door, leaving Paladia to shut the door behind them as they strode off into the shadows.
“Neverending nutsville.” Paladia slammed the door and jogged after them, shaking her head.