A Change of Seasons
The prints were easy to see, near the queen’s quarters. Cait picked them up just outside the window, the imprints clearly defined and deep into the turf, then lighter ones leading away towards the forest.
She turned and looked back through the window, where Gabrielle was leaning on her elbows, watching her. “Jumped out, I suppose.”
“Sure. Why use the door when there’s a window?” Gabrielle remarked, with a sigh. “See if you can find her. She may have gone back to where the fight was.”
“Right.” Cait responded. “Will you be all right with that git in there?” She asked. “Shall I have Pally stick round or get Solari to?”
“She was going to attack you, not me.” Gabrielle said, dryly. “I’ll be fine. When you find her, just everyone come back here so we’re all in one spot.”
“Right.” Cait said again, then she turned and pondered the torch. After a moment she went and put it into the sconce near the window, moving steps away from it and pausing to let her eyes re adjust to the darkness.
Behind her, she was aware of Gabrielle leaving the window, and she waited for the footsteps to stop before she turned again and went to the side of the queen’s quarters. “I say, Pally.”
“What?” Paladia was seated on a log.
“Just stay around here, will you? In case that kid starts bothering her majesty.”
Paladia rolled her eyes. “She’s not that stupid?”
“I’m afraid she is.”
“Gabrielle can beat the crap out of her.” Paladia said. “A lot snappier than I could and she’s got at least two of those big ass sticks in there to do it with.”
“Would you like to go hunting for Xena then with me?”
“Nah I’ll stay here.” Her partner quickly held up one hand and shook it. “Last time you nearly stabbed me in the leg. Just hurry up willya?”
Satisfied, Cait returned to the back of the hut and found the prints again, so obvious it was obvious Xena hadn’t taken any trouble to hide them.
Why should she? Cait went along the edge of the trees as the shadows got a bit clearer, glancing down frequently to make sure she was sticking to the path her mentor had taken. She had a feeling, as Gabrielle had said, that she knew where they would lead and so she was not surprised when they wound through the trees towards the creek.
It was quiet, in the forest once she’d gotten away from the village and she relaxed, feeling at home in the trees where she spent quite a bit of her time hunting and occasionally just walking when the nearness of the Amazons prickled her skin.
She didn’t mind them, most times, but she’d grown up in solitude. She enjoyed just having the silence of the forest around her and as she went deeper into it, she felt her own steps get lighter and more stealthy out of long habit.
Even her breathing changed, becoming slower, and she opened her lips to taste the air that was filling with moss and the pungent smell of moisture, the brassy tang of the creek nearing and as the breeze blew across her face from that direction, the smell of wet stone.
Xena’s prints on the ground disappeared and she paused, kneeling to view the ground. There was a log nearby, and she squirmed closer, getting her face close enough to make out the bark, close enough to detect the faint scuff of leather boots crumbling it’s surface.
Still not hiding her tracks, just leaving her usual, minimal signs because despite her size, Xena walked through the world leaving a light touch on it, only the pressure of her boots bottom surface, sure balance leading to no brush of her body or hand against bark.
She had followed Xena, once or twice through the forest, just watching and learning and seen her stop in mid motion, almost immediately blending into the surroundings, standing on a log, utterly relaxed and at one with the wild.
Cait got up and hopped onto the log, walking along it as the sound of the creek approaching got louder in her ears, covering up the usual night noises of the small hunters on either side of her.
They were safe tonight. There was plenty of provision in the village, and they had been making stew before she left. They would have some when she got back with Xena and perhaps a bit of cider to wash it all down.
Cait didn’t like ale and only tolerated wine. She did like a bit of fruit cider though, and she had thought about asking Cyrene how to make it to see if she could manage.
The ground sloped now down to the creek and as she stepped off the log it got boggy, holding only the barest smudge of Xena’s boot prints making straight for the bank.
And there, they stopped. Cait regarded the water with a sigh. “Bother.” She muttered, glancing in either direction and carefully checking the path on either side of her to see if, perhaps, Xena had simply walked along the bank.
No such luck. Gathering herself up, and making sure her daggers were well seated, and her sword belt was tightened, Cait climbed down the bank and into the creek, grimacing at the chill as it came up her legs to her midsection.
She stood in the current for a moment, pondering, then nodded. “Let’s try that cave first.” She said aloud. “Hope you’re there.”
Gabrielle went back into the front room of her quarters where Tarah was seated. “Okay.” She took a seat behind her work table, folding her hands on top of it and regarding the young Amazon.
“What are you going to do to me?” Tarah asked, suddenly.
“Did you put that rope up there?” Gabrielle countered.
Gabrielle propped her chin up on her fist. “Why?” She watched the girl just stare back sullenly at her. Then she got up and went to the cabinet, bringing back a pitcher and two wooden cups. She poured herself some cider and one for the girl, and offered it.
Gabrielle put the cup back down, and then she leaned back on her table, casually crossing her boots at the ankle, swirling her own cup in one hand and taking a sip from it. “You might want to answer that last question, because that’s going to matter in what I end up doing.”
Tarah stared at her in silence, and Gabrielle merely returned the stare, content to wait it out.
Finally, Tarah looked away, thereby missing the faint smile that flickered on and off her queen’s face. “That night at the shrine, I was special.” She remained staring at the wall, which held Gabrielle’s ceremonial Amazon trappings. “I liked that.”
Gabrielle’s eyebrows twitched, lifting slightly as her eyes widened. “Because you were the center of attention?”
Tarah looked back at her. “No. I didn’t care about that.” She said. “I was doing something important.” She clarified. “I got a… I knew what it felt like to matter.” She impulsively got up and paced. “I couldn’t believe how good that felt.”
This had just gone somewhere Gabrielle hadn’t actually expected.
As though reading her mind, Tarah turned and faced her. “You don’t know what that’s like. You always matter.”
Gabrielle’s head tilted a bit to one side and her gaze went inward for a long moment. “That’s true.” She agreed, with a faintly surprised nod. “Even when my father was beating me, I mattered.” She put her cup down and then folded her arms over her chest. “It’s not always a great thing, y’know?”
Not always great, to matter. She reflected in a moments crystal silence. Not to her parents. Not to the gods. Sometimes not even to Xena, or to herself, or to these Amazons. “Sometimes I wonder what it would be like to not matter.”
Tarah stared at her in silence for a long moment. “You don’t mean that.” But her voice rose a bit in uncertainty. “Do you?”
“I think I do.” Gabrielle told her, in a thoughtful tone. “You know if you stand long enough in the crosswinds of the world it can make you think stuff like that.” She paused. “But anyway… you definitely got to matter at the ceremony, so then what?”
Uncertainly, Tarah put her hands on her hips. “So then the next day, after all that I get to clean out everyone elses trash.” She said. “That’s what they told us. Now we’re juniors? Great. Lowest of the low.”
“So yeah, when we were finally done being pack mules, and we could take a drink in the market, we were all pissed off.” Tarah said. “Jax and his friends talked to us like we were people.” She sat down again. “I liked him.”
“Did he like you?” Gabrielle asked.
“He said he did.”
Gabrielle let out a gentle sigh. “So you made it up that they’d come up and you’d help them scrounge some resources, and you’d all take off. That where we end up?”
After a brief hesitation, Tarah nodded. “We didn’t tell anyone else about it.” She said, suddenly. “Like.. not those other guys. They must have just found it, because Jax said he.. “ She stared at Gabrielle. “And now he’s probably dead because of your crazy guard.”
Gabrielle regarded her. “Doing what you did put the entire village at risk. Cait did the right thing.”
“She’s crazy. She likes killing people.” Tarah said. “What did she ever do to get to be in charge? Just kill people.”
Gabrielle frowned, not entirely understanding the bitterness and anger of the emotion behind the words. “Tarah, isn’t that how you get to be in charge in the Amazons?” She asked. “What do you think the challenge for the mask is?” She unfolded her arms and braced her hands on the desk. “It’s kinda part of the deal here, you know?”
“It’s stupid. That’ shouldn’t be what matters and that’s all everyone cares about.” Tarah said, in a rush. “Who’s the strongest, who can shoot the straightest arrow, who can club a boar.. you can’t even get props for doing stuff like Renas did until you’re too old to fight.”
There was truth there. Gabrielle felt a moment of uncomfortable revelation. Hadn’t she finally, finally gotten respect as the Queen after she’d proven herself not a wise ruler, not a sage negotiator, not even as a good storyteller, but as a warrior?
Ew. She had. All the frustration she’d ever felt with that whole pecking order mantra hadn’t even mattered because she’d ended up pecking anyway.
“Its stupid.” Tarah repeated. “So yeah, we wanted to get out of here. Go somewhere we could be something other than pack mules or the last picked to go hunting.” She looked dourly at her queen. “And now you say we could have just done it anyway? Why didn’t you tell us? That sucks!”
“It does.” Gabrielle said. “That’s on me. I knew the minders hadn’t told you and I didn’t correct them and I should have.”
Tarah stared at her in surprised silence.
“Sometimes being an adult also sucks.” Gabrielle’s lips twitched briefly into a faint grin. “You have to own your mess. That includes taking responsibility for the stuff you do.” Gabrielle went to the door of her quarters and opened it, sticking her head out and spotting Paladia loitering nearby. “Hey.”
“Hey.” Paladia eyed her, sidling over. “Everything okay?” She asked. “The nutcase told me to watch out for ya.”
The utter irony nearly made Gabrielle sneeze. “Do me a favor? Tell everyone to meet over in the hall in a candlemark, and see if.. ah.” She spotted a second form in the shadows. “Sol, c’mere.”
Solari came ambling over. “Yazzm?”
Gabrielle stood aside in the doorway. “Put this kid under guard. Bring her to the hall after we all gather there along with the rest of those kids.”
As she led the way through the dense stand of trees that bordered the edge of the town Xena felt a sense of day’s ending at last. Now, here in the dark, the pieces were finally falling into place. Questions were getting answered.
How the cretins had ended up by the creek was revealed. She didn’t have some gap to the underworld opening up on her mountain burping them up for a change.
Also, why the cretins were all tongue wagging and hunting furiously up there, answered in a handful of rough gold nuggets that someone had seen, and figured to find more of. Gotcha.
Now that made sense. She mentally was ticking off things as she walked along a path of flat stones barely reflecting what small amount of light was overhead along their rough gray surface, her balance easy and relaxed as the smell of the mud and trash was fading behind them and she caught the scent of woodsmoke ahead.
A hunter’s path, here in the bogs. Laid down so that snares for water rodents and other critters wouldn’t end up catching some kid’s foot and not much traveled now that the town had other food sources to plunder but she remembered hunting here and it made her smile a little.
An owl flew past, just over her head and she heard the fast tattoo of a rabbit’s hind legs and she had a sense in that moment, odd and surprising, of being in her own place that she hadn’t had for a very long time. Just a sense of connection to these lands, and this forest, and the ground under her boots that was both subtle and sure.
This bit of woods was much smaller now, with the town growing outward, but she vaguely remembered being much younger and running through these trees chasing squirrels here, and snaring rabbits for her mother’s stewpot.
“So.” Jax said, from just behind her. “You really going to take us up there?”
He remained silent for a moment. “Why?”
“Oh, just call me a romantic.”
“Um.. you really don’t seem like someone who.. um..” Jax ventured. “I mean, you know.”
‘Yeah, I know. Surprises me sometimes.” Xena stepped around a dip in the path and then up onto the trunk of a fallen tree, spotting the open ground ahead of them and the torchlight from the town gates. “C’mon. We’re almost outta here.”
They trooped through the last of the forest and into the open ground between Amphipolis gate and the river where she and the army had stood facing an enemy mere hours before and which now was quiet, the bridge clear of debris and blockage.
Xena’s militia were thick on the ground, some heading for the market square to relieve the guard, some finishing up the clearing of the mess. A few were near the gate, and those half turned as she was recognized, their bodies straightening to attention.
“Genr’l.” Redder jogged over. “There ya are.”
“Here I am.” Xena agreed, as she entered the circle of light from the gates. “Me and my waterlogged self, and some friends I found back in the beyond.” She indicated the now wary trailing youngsters, then ran her fingers through her half dried hair to sort it into some kind of order.
“Bigods, Xena, you’re soaked through.” Bennu had heard and squirmed through the gates. “Let me get you a cloak or something.”
“Where were them kids?” Redder asked. “You find em down by the river?”
“Something like that.” Xena waved the gates open. “Don’t bother, Benny. I’m going up the hill and I’ll get a change at home.” She knocked a bit of mud off her armor, and grimaced. “Found out how they’ve been getting up into the village. I want that whole back section on the guard.”
“Will do, Xena.” Bennu said. “Figured that was pretty safe, with the ridge there.”
“Yeah, live and learn.” Xena admitted. “Lets put a sluice in while we’re at it.”
“Xena, your string’s up in the barn there.” Redder told her. “We got all the rest of em back in paddock down the riverside, this side. Somes got cut, a bit.” He reported. “Medics took care of it.”
“Thanks.” Xena paused, standing in the crossroads before the path up to the inn. The windows of it were open, and she could hear the clatter of plates and cups inside along with the hum of voices, the rich smell of lamb stew wafting out.
“Xena, what d’ye want us to do with them soldiers?” Bennu asked. “I talked to them a bit. Didn’t like that captain you took care of.” He added. “Some of em asked if they could go on up to that damned shrine, dja believe it.”
“Ares’ shrine?” Jax asked. “We heard everyone talking about it.” He tucked his hand under his upper arm, the small box folded inside his fingers. “My grandda was a priest of Ares.” He added offhandedly. “We were going to go see it on the way out of town.”
Xena regarded him thoughtfully. “C’mon.” She indicated the path. “Benny, tell those guys I keep my word. They’re free to leave, or go up to the shrine, or find a spot and camp over there if they want.”
“Some’ll want to stay.” Redder predicted. “Allways do.”
“Aye.” Bennu nodded. “Get this mess all cleaned up.” He had his gauntlets off and they were tucked into his belt, his leather armor dusted in mud. “Crazy day.” He gave Xena a brief grin. “But it’s done now.”
“Crazy day.” Xena agreed, with a smile. Then she turned and waved the kids on with her, and they walked past the inn, past the barn and Cyrene’s garden. “And we’re almost done with it.”
Ephiny stretched her legs out and braced her elbow on the chair arm as she waited for Gabrielle to join her. Pony was sitting on Xena’s arming stool near the wall, content to just listen as the queen filled them in on what she’d just recently learned.
Gabrielle paused, with the wineskin in her hands. “So then Cait came in, covered in river weed with a rope around her neck.” She poured three cups full, as Pony silently covered her eyes. Then she brought the cups back over and handed one to each women. “Then it got weird.”
“She found a rope lashed up near the ridge over where the creek dumps down those waterfalls into the washout.” Gabrielle went back to get her own cup. “That’s how those guys were getting up here.”
Pony shot to her feet. “What???”
“The kids put it there.” The queen turned and regarded them, taking a sip. “They hooked up with a few of them in the market and were hatching a scheme to have them do some pillaging and then run off together.” She held up a hand at the impending response. “Because they felt they were trapped here.”
“That’s BS.” Ephiny said, as Gabrielle sat down across from her. “You should have come got me, Gab. I’d have booted the truth out of those little hens and saved us all some trouble.”
Pony snorted, giving her dark head a shake as she sat back down. “Braineless gits.”
“What part do you mean?” Gabrielle asked. “Some of it was true, Eph.”
“Oh, most if it’s true.” Her regent acknowledged. “Listen, we all know there’s rules and there’s rules. I know the teachers weren’t encouraging even the nitwits in the bunch to get lost, Hades, we had so few people it would have been suicide for the tribe.”
Pony snorted again, this time with a different inflection.
Gabrielle cradled her cup of wine in her hands, feeling the warmth of it through the sides of the cup as the spicy scent drifted up from it’s surface. “Eph, that’s not fair to them, is it?” She asked. “Shouldn’t they know they have a choice?”
“Now? Sure.” Ephiny stated. “Now, we don’t need them.” She went on, frankly. “Now we can be selective, you know? There was a time not too long ago where we needed every warm body just to keep ourselves going.”
“Yeah, it’s not like they didn’t get nothing out of this.” Pony said. “Tribe supports them, feeds them, teaches them.. they get a lot.”
Gabrielle watched her thoughtfully over the edge of her cup. “You ever throw anyone out?”
“You know we have.”
“No I mean.. not for being dangerous. Just for just not being specially good at something or just because you didn’t… want them?”
Both Amazons thought in silence. “Pon?” Ephiny turned to regard her partner. “Ever hear of that? I don’t’ think I have but we were wanting for people most of my life.”
Eponin cleared her throat. “Not so much that.” She said. “I mean, pretty much everyone can learn to do something, you know? It’s like… listen, all the kids would say yes, asked or not, you know? It’s all they know about.”
“True.” Gabrielle said. “But should we teach them?” She studied the ceiling for a moment. “I don’t think that’s how it works for anyone does it? I mean.. I was one of the few girls who got schooled when I lived in Potadeia. Not one second did the teacher there ever tell any of us, boys or girls, that we could leave.”
“Captive workforce.” Ephiny smiled briefly.
“Yeah. You were expected to stick around and take care of the youngers, and your parents when they got older, and then get married and carry on.” Gabrielle looked at them. “Not really different from here, is it?”
Ephiny drew in a breath, then she just exhaled, lifting her cup up in Gabrielle’s direction with a wry smile of acknowledgment.
“Anyway it’s not your fault about them.” Pony spoke up. “Like Eph said, we all knew about it. I remember being bumped and talking about it with my age mates.. all two of them. We talked about it, waiting for the ceremony. Like what we would do if we weren’t going to grow up and be Amazons. We laughed.”
“For a woman in these parts? It’s the best choice if you didn’t want to end up living the town life.” Ephiny said. “You get a few years of everyone running you around, sure, but it’s not like everyone else. I heard what they saw out in Thrace.” She said. “You should tell those little nitwits those stories.”
“Mmph.” Gabrielle grunted softly, her hands lifting a little bit off her thighs and dropping again in an automatic motion of assent. “It’s true.” She nodded a little. “Gods know, it was for me.”
Ephiny regarded her indulgently. “You didn’t belong in Potadeia.”
“No, I didn’t.” Her queen smiled.
“No one told you that.” Pony remarked. “But you knew.”
“Yeah, it’s true. I did. Lila’ll tell you if you ask her. I was that weird changling you hear about in stories.” Gabrielle agreed. “No one had to tell me to leave. All I needed was..”
“The destroyer of nations to drop by and steal you.” Ephiny grinned.
“Was to follow my heart, I was going to say but that’s true too. I needed a reason and she was it.” Gabrielle regarded them both thoughtfully. “But is that really why we never told them? Because we were afraid they’d find that outside world a better place and abandon us? No one likes that feeling. I know it hurt my family when I did it no matter how much of a pain in the ass I was.”
Ephiny seemed about to answer, then she paused, thinking.
Pony shook her head. “They just want what they haven’t earned yet.” She said, bluntly. “Big mistake having that kid get popped for that ceremony. It’d be like having her be queen for a day. Nothing but a big head coming out of that.”
Ephiny slowly nodded in agreement. “Y’know, Pon’s right.” She admitted. “Now that I think about it. We shoulda made that a townie, not one of us.”
“She volunteered.” Gabrielle mused. “You said she was ambitious.. this all about not wanting to pay her dues? Talking to those kids.. I don’t know.” She put her hands behind her head and leaned back. “I don’t really get where they’re coming from.”
Pony and Ephiny exchanged glances. Pony folded her arms and pursed her lips, cocking her head slightly in a waiting attitude, while Ephiny made a little face, her nose scrunching up before she cleared her throat a little, giving Gabrielle a brief little look before she started speaking.
“Uh oh.” Gabrielle suppressed a smile, knowing her regent now well enough to read her body language and expecting to hear something Ephiny suspected she wouldn’t like.
She was damned glad, though, they were both in a place where that wouldn’t stop Eph from saying it.
“You set a bad precedent.” Ephiny stated. “Y’know. There was a high and very narrow path to the mask before you showed up.” She said. “Now maybe they feel, why not them? Why do they have to spend all those years sucking up everyone’s left tit and rising through the ranks?”
Gabrielle lifted her hands and spread her arms out in mute and outraged protest.
Pony chuckled. “Yeah, that whole damn plot you never had to be in charge of people you didn’t know. No offense, your maj, but you’re a weirdo in our history.” She said. “Lot of things have changed, you know? We got rules and traditions, but maybe they don’t apply so much.”
“And you bumped Cait.” Ephiny said, after another pause. “That got people upset.”
“Not on purpose.” Gabrielle said, then holding a hand up again. “No, you know what I mean. I wanted her to be my personal guard, but not to deliberately piss people off.” She clarified. “Xe caught me on it after that all ended. Not that she didn’t agree.”
“You trust her.” Pony said. “We get it.”
Gabrielle looked over at her. “Wasn’t so much that I trusted her. It’s that Xena does.” She said quietly. “They kind of see eye to eye on some things.”
“Backhanded compliment, Gab.” Ephiny smiled briefly at her. “They wanted the honor, y’know? They weren’t pissed at Cait, everyone knows what she brings to the table. Hades I knew that when I took that moppet home that first time.”
“Yeah, I know.” Gabrielle rolled her eyes and then tipped her head back to regard the ceiling for a moment, before she looked back at them both.
“Uh oh.” Ephiny echoed back at her with visibly twitching lips.
Her regent knew her a sight better now as well. Gabrielle smiled, leaning forward and resting her elbows on the chair “I should have handed you my right and walked away a long time ago.” She met Ephiny’s eyes without any flinching. “I tied you to us, and everything that comes with us, and that wasn’t fair to anyone.”
Pony just looked at Ephiny, both of them altering from a faintly joking, teasing attitude to something quieter and more serious.
Ephiny swirled her wine in her cup and thought about that for a long, silent moment as though their joint history was visible between them, and she was watching it pass before her eyes.
Then, in a way, it was, as she remembered that scrubby, long blond haired kid in small town togs Gabrielle had been when she’d first seen her, in all her awkward just post adolescent bravura. Totally out of her depth, inexperienced, clumsy and damned near useless.
They, she and her senior mates, had looked so impatiently past her, waiting for Melosa to brush her out of the way and move past this .. yeah, indignity. Melosa had been the finest Amazon warrior Ephiny had ever known, and they all knew how this was going to go.
Even when Xena had stepped up and taken the obvious move to keep this kid from getting her ass kicked it still had not impressed any of them. Xena was all stories and nightmares. Melosa was real, and queen, and theirs and it hadn’t been until the fight was well and started before they all realized.
Before she’d realized they’d gone through a crossroad in the path no one had seen coming, where well and truly their destiny had just taken a fork, in the person of this ordinary village idiot who had against all odds grown into who Gabrielle was now.
She remembered Gabrielle’s face, eyes widened in bewildered wonder after it was over, and now, looking at the now fully matured version across from her, thinking of all that had come between then and now, she felt the bedrock honesty of what she’d said.
In the logical, what was right category, Gabrielle should have walked away. She had no business being queen of the Amazons and she, herself knew that. Even here, even dressed in Amazon leathers, sitting in the queens quarters in an Amazon village, she was no more a true Amazon than Cyrene was.
But really - It just didn’t damned matter.
“Yeah.” She finally agreed. “That’s all true.” She paused. “But just like you wouldn’t change any moment of your life, no matter how utterly crappy that moment was, neither would I.”
Gabrielle felt one of those small moments of silent clarity in her life she’d come to savor. A little sudden prickle of the skin across her back, a faint charge of surprise and delight she felt deep in her heart.
“It’s been a long, damned hard, and scary ass road.” Ephiny went on, with a faint shake of her head. “But we’ve ended up in a good place, and without you and Xena, we wouldn’t have.”
Pony grinned briefly. “S’true.” She said. “Everyone can bitch and moan, but we got here, and we’re here, and it’s cool.”
“Can’t argue.” Gabrielle agreed, with a smile. “Even if I wanted to.”
“And I was feeding Samba before, and I figured…” Now Ephiny grinned as well, a bit impishly. “I’m either gonna leave her with a rich and wealthy tribe.. “ Her eyebrows twitched. “Or we’ll all die in some pointless weird god involved insanity as a byblow of Xena kicking one of their shins.” She shrugged. “It’s all good. It’s life. Take what ya get.”
Gabrielle rested her head on her fist, elbow braced on the chair arm, smiling in response as they all looked again at each other, the nearby fire popping gently in the silence.
“Wow, that went deep.” Pony finally said. “I think we need more wine.” She got up and went to get the wineskin, pausing to look over her shoulder at Gabrielle. “And honest - I wanna live a life stuffed full of holy craps. Better that than croaking from boredom counting crickets.”
“And since I aint got a choice, it’s all good.” Pony gave them both a thumbs up. “Those kids just don’t know that yet. They’ll learn.” She poured Ephiny’s cup full, then walked over and did the same for Gabrielle. “If we don’t kill them first. So what are we gonna do with em?”
“Good question.” Ephiny resettled herself in the chair. “I’d love to know where all this cruft came from though. I’da thought we woulda heard swirl about some of it, from someone.” She frowned. “Usually I do.”
Pony sat down again. “Yeah, not sure where they got some of that stuff. Like not being able to do smithcrafting until they were old.. what the Hades was that It’s not true at all – they’ve been doing that for hens years, it’s just we didn’t have good stuff to do it with until now.”
“Now it’s worth a lot. Market showed it.” Ephiny nodded sagely. “Before we’d trade a little, between tribes or on the road. But now they saw those coin bags coming back up here.”
“And it cost us.” Pony added, in a serious tone. “For sure they stirred up all those dirtbags down the town, Eph. I talked to the nutball twins. The guys that went after them were after their stock.”
“They were sold out.”
Pony nodded. “That’s what they told them.” She said. “They didn’t buy it, or figured they’d take what they could out of them. Anyway, it was fast and dirty. Cait said they were firing arrows into the shelter before she could get over there to stop them.”
Gabrielle got up and went over to the fireplace, putting her hands on the mantle and letting the warmth wash over her to chase back the chill from the words. “Wait.”
“We come back around to how and why those three were down there.” Gabrielle turned and regarded them. “That’s a missing piece… hang on.” She walked over to the door and opened it, leaning out and squinting past the torchlight. “Hey.”
Paladia was loitering, sitting with a small parchment pad and a bit of charcoal on a nearby log. She looked up at the greeting. “Hey.”
“C’mere a minute.”
Paladia got up and ambled over, ducking inside as Gabrielle moved back to let her in. Her eyes went from Pony to Ephiny, then back to Gabrielle. “Hi?” She ventured. “You guys need something?”
“During the fight.” Gabrielle sat down on her garment press, and gestured for Paladia to take her former seat. “You were over in the market.”
“Yeeeah.” Paladia cautiously sat down, and set her parchment down on the nearby table. “Crazy ass down there.” She added, after a pause. “Went down in the morning to get a sketch in of those horses.” She said. “Some of those guys were asking to buy one.”
“So you were down there all day.”
Paladia nodded. “Pretty much.” She opened her parchment pad up and turned it around. “Got it mostly done before all the crap started happening.”
On the surface was a very nice rendering of the desert stallion, standing in the paddock with his head lifted as though listening, and his tail flowing in the breeze. The other horses were behind him in a cluster, just loosely sketched in and to one side, the tree that provided shade was just a few strokes.
“Gorgeous.” Gabrielle said. “Who’s it for?” She added, almost as an afterthought. “If they took off I know someone who’d be interested.”
“That guy.” Paladia said. “The other story guy. “ She covered the pad again. “I think he was getting Solstice presents or something because he’s the one who paid off that kid to go get Renas and Das, said he wanted them to do a bracelet or something for him.”
“Huh.” Gabrielle’s brow creased a bit. “You know, he told me he hadn’t had a chance to really get any dinars when he was here. So that’s kinda weird.”
“He paid what kid to go get them?” Ephiny asked, suddenly serious. “One of ours?”
Paladia nodded. “That kid that got jumped.”
“Humped.” Pony corrected her dryly.
“Whatever.” The ex renegede said. “Gave her a full dinar at least. She took off and headed up here, then crap started happening and I lost track of what that was all about cause I was getting my ass down behind some boxes so I wouldn’t get an arrow in it.”
“Huh.” Gabrielle said, again. “That’s interesting. I think I want to talk to him.” She glanced at Paladia. “Feel like finding him for me and bringing him up here?”
Paladia shrugged and stood up. “Better than chasing the nutcase around in the forest. Sure.” She put her bit of charcoal down on the parchment. “Keep an eye on that willya?” She turned and went to the door, ducking outside it and letting it close behind her.
Gabrielle drummed her fingertips on the table. “We’ll get to the bottom of this. I just wish..”
The door opened and Xena appeared in the opening, leaning one shoulder against the frame and crossing her legs at the ankle. “Your wish is my command?” She inquired, a mildly sardonic look on her face.
“Yes, oh love of my life.” Gabrielle acknowledged the internal sense of relief as she stood and then got a better look at her partner. “What the Hades happened to you?” She gestured at the moss and mud stains that liberally covered Xena’s tall figure.
“Long story.” Xena said. “What’s going on here?”
“Long story.” Gabrielle responded. “C’mon in, and lets trade.”
Cait knelt at the entrance to the cave, bracing one hand on the wall and one of the rock, aslosh with water from the creek. She could see the scuff marks in the mud, and nearby a piece of the bank had been kicked free, exposing a bit of log in pale relief against the moss covered rest of it.
But that could have been anyone, really. She went to the narrow entrance and paused, letting her elbows rest on her knees and wishing for daylight to see better.
The moon was out, and over the trees and provided some pale silver assistance but it’s light was so diffuse she couldn’t really see details in the stone. With a sigh, she crawled inside and a foot or so in just shut her eyes completely because there wasn’t any use of them.
But she had other senses, and once she’d gotten into the middle bit of the cave she stopped, resting on her knees and waited for the air to settle around her so she could use them.
At once, she knew she was alone. There was no other living creature in the space, and that let the smell of the sand floor, with its rivery mud scent and the acrid old taste of woodsmoke surface.
She inhaled slowly, now sensing at the fringe a bit of leather, and the barest tang of metal on the air, and she leaned over and slowly let her fingertips brush over the sand.
Ah. The imprint of a hand, and she traced it’s outline, finding a deeper depression near it where someone had knelt, as she was kneeling, who had been somewhat larger, dressed in animal hide, but bare to the knee and tall enough for their shoulders to brush the wall behind her leaving behind just a hint of human scent.
Quite likely Xena, in fact. Cait nodded a little bit, imagining easily her mentor crouched her, searching the place as she was and she wondered what she might have found as she followed the tracks across the floor to the far side, finding herself nothing but dark and mud.
Peh. Cait retreated back to the mouth of the cave and emerged back into the moonlight, standing up and stretching a crick from her back as she regarded the surface of the creek running past downstream. Now what? Had Xena given up and gone back to the village?
She walked to the edge of the tiny landing and crouched again, finding a scuff mark on a bit of root sticking out of the water, and evidence that someone had stood here and then.. She felt the root, pressing on it as it yielded to her touch.
Yes. Someone had jumped into the creek from here. She could now see several branches shoved aside and broken and wondered, had Xena left here in that much haste? It wasn’t like her to provide so much evidence of her passing unless she was in some kind of hurry.
Cait pictured what was downstream, seeing herself in the pale light the ripple of rapids as the slope moved downhill as she heard the motion, and following the glint of the water through the thick trees around the bend and then it would drop steeply.
To a waterfall, actually. The one the ridge topped, where she’d so recently been and found that blasted rope. She knelt very still, the water washing past her knees and thought about that, about the satisfaction of cutting the strands, and hearing the yell of the invaders as they fell.
Screams, actually. Cait remembered the fear in them and then it had made her smile.
But what if Xena had heard it?
“Rats.” Cait exhaled, preparing herself to enter the chill water again. “I hope I haven’t done something to end up regretting.” She jumped as Xena had jumped from the tree into the creek and went with the current into the dark.
“Okay.” Gabrielle leaned back against the wall, arms folded. “Now what happened?”
Xena ruffled her hair dry with a towel, a second wrapped around her now clean body. “I was chasing ghosts.” She said. “And I was at that damn cave, when I heard someone yelling their head off.”
They were alone, and Gabrielle was intensely glad of it. “Wish you would have told me.” She said, in some exasperation.
“You weren’t here.”
“You knew where I was.”
Xena put the towel around her neck and regarded her partner. “Is this really the time for a fight?” She asked, her head tilting a little in honest question.
Gabrielle came over and leaned against her, closing her eyes. “No.” She admitted. “Sorry.” She gave her a kiss on the bare shoulder. “I’m just really frustrated right now. Go on with your story.”
So much of their history had played into them being this honest. Xena took a bit of her towel and wiped the edge of Gabrielle’s ear with it, appreciating the ethereal, clean feeling of the emotion silently resonating between them.
Ferociously sharp at times, but comfortingly bold, allowing no festering behind it.
Xena smiled. “Anyway, I jumped into the creek. Figured it was the fastest way towards the noise and when I got there I found a kid tumbling down the ridge and grabbed him.”
“Yeah. He was climbing a rope that was tied up onto that big jag, past the pits.” Xena went on, resting one wrist on Gabrielle’s shoulder and running the fingers of her other hand through her pale hair. “Figure that’s how those bastards were getting up here.”
“Why do I have a feeling you know more about my story than I do?”
“Don’t I always?” Gabrielle glanced up at her, a wry twinkle in her eyes. She felt a certain weight come off her shoulders. “I probably found out about that rope about a half candlemark after you did. But go on.”
“Someone cut the rope while we were hanging on in and we went downstream.”
Gabrielle blinked. “Over the waterfall?”
“Actually it was kinda fun.” Xena gave her a kiss on the top of her head, then eased past and went to the garment press in the queen’s quarter’s small bedroom. “I fished us out down by the swamp and it turns out this kid’s part of the story.”
“His name Jax, by any chance?”
Xena turned, a rough linen shirt in her hands, arrested in the act of putting it on, blue eyes mildly widened in surprise.
Gabrielle chuckled softly. “Hey at least so far we’re on the same parchment.”
“Yeah. He’s in the kitchen with his pals, under guard.” She pulled the shirt on and laced it. “Says he’s got something he wants to say to one of the juniors.”
Xena folded her arms, facing Gabrielle. “Huh.” She said. “Those kids finally talk?” She guessed. “I knew there was more to what was going on.”
Gabrielle came over and they sat down together on the press, side by side. “They admitted they ran the ropes. They were messing around with those boys. Were going to trade some treasure up here for them running off together.”
Xena gave her a puzzled look. “The junior Amazons?”
“The young women who now live together in that dorm, bitching about being low on the pole with each other.” Gabrielle corrected her. “Another thing that went over my head like bats apparently.” She regarded her soulmate’s furrowed brow. “Honey, if you’d been put low on anyone’s pole you’d have beaten them over the head with it so just go with me on this one, okay?”
Xena pondered that for a long moment and then shook her head faintly. “Anyway, the nuggets in that bag were this kids.” She said, after a pause. “He and his buddies were here to buy some horses. They lost the bag up here and were trying to get it back.”
Gabrielle regarded her. “More scam than puppy love?” She queried, in a tone of faint surprise. “Aw.”
“No.” Xena’s dark brows contracted a little. “I think he’s interested in her.” She allowed. “His buddies are more interested in the swag, though.”
“Hm.” Gabrielle grunted thoughtfully. “Why bring them up here?” She asked, after a moment. “Just to piss everyone off?” There was no accusation in the words, just mild curiosity.
“I’m a romantic at heart.” Xena stated, with a straight face.
“You are.” Gabrielle responded, with a smile. “Even if I’m the only one in the world who knows it.” She added, observing Xena’s eye roll. “Hey I’m glad you brought them. Feels like we need a shake up.”
Gabrielle chuckled again, thumping her heels against the press in an idle tattoo.
Xena joined her, reaching up to sort out her drying bangs and push them back. “What are you going to do with those nitwits? Doing what they did is no joke.” She redirected the conversation, her tone dropping and becoming more serious.
“I was trying to figure that out when you came in.” Gabrielle admitted, with a sigh. “If it was just that, Xe, kids clowning around - if it hadn’t gotten so many people hurt.. “
“Killed.” Xena stated briefly.
“Yeah.” Gabrielle acknowledged, with a brief nod. “But you know, I feel like this is my fault.”
Xena pressed her shoulder against Gabrielle’s. “I was just thinking it was my fault before.” She agreed mournfully. “As in, I could have stopped this before it all happened.” She regarded the opposite wall, lined in faintly striated dried bark. “Didn’t have to go the way it did.”
Without any thought, Gabrielle reached over and clasped Xena’s hand in her own, wrapping their fingers together, her own eyes slightly unfocused. “Yeah. I was just thinking.. how did we get here?” She replied. “How did we go from looking forward to a spring festival to this cornucopia of sheep poo as fast as all that?”
Xena glanced down at their joined hands and frowned. “Yeah.”
“I mean… “ Gabrielle went on, in a thoughtful tone. “Not had the festival? Not made it a big deal? Not involved the shrines? What was the turning point?”
“Maybe dealt with the damn oracle better?” Xena suggested. “Not pissed everyone off like I did?”
“They came in acting like a bunch of jerks.” Gabrielle said. “They deserved to be told off and besides, you were nice to that guy, Xe. You let him sleep with your soldiers.” She pondered. “I didn’t have to rile them up with those stories.”
“They’re true.” Xena objected mildly.
“Yeah, I know, but I also know hundreds of stories about you that are true that don’t involve you hauling out the Sword of War.” Her partner said. “I did it to piss them off.”
“Mm. I think any story about me woulda.” Xena shook her head. “None of them wanted anything to do with women who didn’t want them in bed.” She reminded her. “Remember? They all had that in common. I was wondering what the Hades we did to draw them all in here.”
“Started off with that stupid kid, with the horses.” Xena went on. “He was the first one with that jackass attitude, now that I think about it. Everyone else was pretty laid back before he showed up and..” She paused, with a frown.
“And sassed you.” Gabrielle completed the thought. “You know, you’re right, Xe. That guy and those horses. Then everyone kinda started to take sides. The elders in the town even. Your mom said it was good he was a horse thief, remember?”
“As if trying to hurt our kids and wanting to rape women who live here wasn’t enough.” Gabrielle’s voice dipped in anger, taking on a half growl. “That really pissed me off.”
“Probably why you told those stories.” Xena said, in a mild tone. “Don’t’ blame you.”
Gabrielle turned and looked at her. “Isn’t that why you executed him?” She studied the angular profile outlined in firelight from the small brazier in the room. “Had nothing to do with stealing horses, did it?”
Xena was silent for a long moment, as their eyes met. “That was enough to justify it.” She finally said, slowly. “But that’s not why I did it.”
Gabrielle leaned closer to her, making contact along the length of their bodies. “Share.” She asked gently. “Was it the women?”
“No.” Xena squeezed her fingers a little. “Remember he said he’d known an Amazon, once?”
Gabrielle nodded, after a second. “Oh yeah. And?”
“He told me her name.” Xena said. “It was Cari’s mother.”
Gabrielle blinked at her in utter silence, as stunned as she had been in facing this woman in a very long time, her jaw dropped just enough to be visible by her slightly parted lips.
“She was an Amazon. A real one. He had no claim.” Xena went on after a long pause. “But I wasn’t going to risk her having to go through that.” She glanced at the window, then back at her partner. “Or us.”
Gabrielle’s jaw moved, then went still, her eyes fastened on Xena’s face. Then she drew in a breath and finally murmured a response. “Xena.”
Xena nodded. “I know. Who am I to judge anyone, huh?” A faint smile appeared on her face. “Right or wrong, that’s why, Gabrielle. I realized in that jail cell and I had the chance and I took it.”
Gabrielle let the waves of shock wash through her, aware of the steady heartbeat she could just see at the pulse point in Xena’s throat as she thought about what she’d just learned, stunned in truth but not surprised given her history.
The greater good, after all. This was what it was to understand that so finely it could allow you to make that kind of choice with such.. She looked into Xena’s eyes. With such certainty. Such absolute belief.
What would she have done? Would she have killed someone not because of what they’d done, but because what they might have?
But yes, of course she would have, because in fact she had. Gabrielle lifted their joined hands to her lips and gave Xena’s fingers a kiss. “Thanks for protecting her.” She said, in a tone of deep affection. “I had no idea. He was such a little stinker it wouldn’t have occurred to me.”
“You don’t breed horses.” Xena replied, matter of factly. “I’m used to looking for traits in a bloodline.”
Gabrielle laughed softly. “Know something?”
“I’m about to.”
“We’re just kidding ourselves thinking we could have changed anything.” Gabrielle stated. “Because someone smart once told me, we are who we are and we attract trouble like spring flowers do bees.”
“We?” Xena’s eyes widened in mock outrage. “For sure ONE of us does.” She leaned over and they kissed for a long moment of contentment, ignoring the sounds of the village floating in through the windows and the pressures of the day.
Enjoying for a moment the physical comfort of love and it’s ability to bridge the gaps of humanity.
Then Gabrielle sighed. “Come help me adjudicate these kids.” She put her arms around Xena and hugged her fiercely. “We have to change how we do things, Xe. Some of these traditions don’t make any sense anymore.”
“Lets get done with this and go home.” Xena said, giving the back of her head a little scritch. “I want my bed tonight and you in it.”
Gabrielle stood, giving herself a little shake. “You’re on.” She said. “And.. oh, damn it. Let me go get the guard to call Cait back in.” She slapped the side of her head. “She’s out in the forest looking for you.”
“For me?” Xena stood and grabbed a dry pair of boots near the press. “Why?” She sat down and started pulling them on.
“I asked her to.” Gabrielle went through the door into the main space of the queen’s quarters. “After you disappeared from here without telling me where you were going.” She looked over her shoulder and wagged a finger at her partner. “Xena.”
Xena gave her an unrepentant, sexy smile. “Gonna punish me for that?”
“You’d enjoy it.”
“Only if it involved honey.”
They both started laughing, as Xena joined her in the other room, picking up her sword and retrieving a belt to wear it on as Gabrielle opened the door to summon the guard.
Dori looked up from her picture to find Cari standing next to her, curls in disarray. “What you do?”
Cari climbed up onto the chair next to hers. “We go home soon?”
Dori looked around. Most of the kids were on their cots scattered around the big room, and it was dark outside. “We gots to wait for mama.” She agreed, mournfully. “Mama and Boo are in the other place.”
Cari sat down on the chair and made a little face. “Tired.”
“We can go to the place here.” Dori pushed her bit of parchment aside and stood up on her chair, peering around the room. Two of the minders were in the corner, drinking something. The mood in the room was a bit sad, everyone feeling bad about Aalene.
Poopoo had come and gotten their friend and taken her to the other place, where all the bigs were yaking.
“Let’s go to our place.” Dori decided, climbing down off the chair and going over to where their three forest dweller friends were curled up taking a nap. “Hey.” Dori shook Warin’s shoulder. “We go?”
Warin lifted his head up. “Go where?”
“Sure.” Warin got up and nudged his sisters, who popped up alertly. “We go to Dor’s. Wait for papa.”
They all got up and joined Dori and Cari, threading their way across the floor among the other sleeping children all the way over to the outside door.
“We tell the minders?” Cari hesitated, looking back over her shoulder at the two, who seemed oblivious to their motion.
Dori pulled the door open. “They’re busy.” She shooed them out ahead of her. “We don’t bother them.” She pulled the door closed behind her and then got in front of her little gang, leading them down the path from the children’s quarters to the center of the village.
“Boof!” Buppit gallumped up with Teo in his shadow. “Boof!”
“Yo, Buppit.” Warin greeted him. “Where ya been?”
Dori put her arm over his back. “He was talking to Guff, probly.” She said knowledgeably. “Making stories.”
“Guff’s cool.” Warin said. “We like wolfies. Dada wants to see if we can get some in our house.”
“He’s cool.” Dori agreed. “Good friends with Boo.”
They walked across the big open space, empty now since everyone was yakking in the other room. “Hey.” Dori glanced to one side. “We can probably get some cookies.”
“Hungry.” Butterbean confirmed at once.
Dori swerved from her path and went up the way to the kitchen instead, and Buppit’s tail started to wiggle as they could smell it getting closer.
It was nice and quiet, how she liked it, and she pushed the door open to find the kitchen completely empty. “Good.” She entered and they came in right behind her. The back hearth was warm and lit, and there were pots hanging on it where the good smells were coming from.
“Mm.” Warin went over to one of them. “Deers.”
Cari went over and picked up a stack of bowls, bringing them back over to the hearth. “Here!”
Dori dragged a stool over, and Butterbean found a big spoon, and a moment later they were completely engaged in getting some of the warming stew from the pot into the bowls, all chortling, forgetting their original intent.
“Careful Dodo.” Cari warned, taking hold of the stool when it wobbled. “Don’t get owie.”
“Gots.” Dori balanced easily, extending the spoon with both hands. “Its goooooood.”
“Yum.” Gaby sniffed. “Lots of deers.”
“Yum.” Warin took his bowl carefully and went over to the worktable, the top almost empty except a set of knives, clean and ready for the next day. His sisters joined him, then Cari put her bowl down and went over to hold one for Dori.
Dori put a spoonful of stew into the bowl, then she paused. “Get one more. Doggos are hungry.”
“Doggos are always hungry.” Cari agreed, and they remedied that before joining the forest dwellers at the table. “Good. I don’t think we had this in our place.”
“No, mama didn’t make any before.” Dori said. “Too busy yakety yak yak yak.”
“We go listen to the yak yak?” Cari suggested. “Maybe mama is telling a story.” She had a smudge of stew juice on her cheek and Teo put his feet on her chair and licked it off for her, making her giggle.
“Dada is there. We should go.” Warin agreed. “Maybe fuuuun?”
Paladia paused at the gates to the town, waiting for the militia to open them. Most of the officers were either in barracks, or up at the inn, the guard on watch were some of the newer recruits she only knew casually.
“Hold on a second, ma’am.” One of them worked the large, heavy beam that held the gates closed.
Paladia snorted in reaction, then she went to go help him. “Gimme that.”
Together they dragged the beam free, and a second guard pushed the gates open.
“Whoof. Thanks.” The first grinned at her. “You’re the drawing lady aren’t you?”
Paladia paused, and looked around then back at him. “Yeah.” She admitted reluctantly.
“You did that picture up at the altar.” The second one said. “Someone said that.”
“Yeah.” Paladia confirmed. “I did both of them.” She added, after a pause. “Why? Don’t like em?” She eyed them both narrowly.
The first blushed. “I like em.” He said. “Just.. “ He exchanged a look with his pal. “How real are they? I mean you know? How’d you know what to draw?”
“Oh that. Somebody described them that way.” Paladia glanced past them. “Hey, you seen that storyteller down there?” She changed the subject. “The big shots want to talk to him.”
The other guard came over, interested. “You mean that guy that was telling the one about the Trojan war?” He asked. “It was okay.” He opined. “Not near so good as Gabrielle’s.”
“That’s the guy. He down there?” Paladia pointed at the market. “Or he up here?” She indicated the inn with her thumb over her shoulder.
“Not up here.” The guard shook his head. “All full up in there. They got some tents and stuff set up down the market he’s probably there busking.” He paused. “I’ll go down with ya.” He offered. “Help ya look.”
“Sure.” Paladia started down the slope towards the river, across the trampled grass and onto the stone lined path between torches that led to the bridge. The guard trotted at her heels, his black tabard with it’s gold hawks head picking up the reddish light.
“D’ja see that fight before?” The guard asked. “Xena’s, I mean.”
“Kicked their asses!”
“Yeah.” Paladia nodded. “I was down the other side of it. Got a good look.”
“Gonna do a picture of it?”
“Maybe.” Paladia shrugged, then considered, thinking about the moment when Xena had come hauling ass over the wagons right on top of their heads, sticker in both hands, and bodies started flying everywhere.
She nodded a little, composing in her head the scene of that crowd of soldiers, bunches heading towards her and the front line doing everything they could to get away from that pair of blades.
She chuckled slightly. That was an oh shit moment for sure. Breeches were being crapped in all directions because Xena was to soldiers like a wolf was to a barn mutt. Even these militia guys weren’t in her league but most of them knew it.
“Wish she’d waited on us.” The guard said, glumly.
“Why?” Paladia looked at him as they crossed the bridge, nearly empty now at this hour, only a few of the militia hanging around keeping an eye on things. “You’da just gotten in her way. Probably why she did it that way. Ended it up faster with less blood and crap to clean up.”
“She sure can fight.” The kid sighed mournfully. “These guys from Athens said they never saw nothing like that before.”
Paladia had seen it before. “Yeah.” She agreed shortly. “C’mon.”
On the far side of the bridge some of the townsfolk and some of the militia were still sorting out the wreckage. To one side, under a bare shelter there were a pile of wrapped bodies waiting to be put on a pyre, rebuilt in the same spot they’d done the other day.
The market itself had been torn apart and wrecked, the remains of some of the permanent booths smouldering and letting off an acrid burnt canvas scent as they passed.
Beyond that in the field around the theatre stage what was left of the wagons were camped, and on the stage itself there was a mix of soldiers and travelers sharing a common pot and some mugs.
Tomorrow they’d be gone, and good riddance. Paladia paused at the edge of the field and looked around, searching for the storyteller. “Figures you want him and can’t find him.” She muttered. “Just like when the fighting was going on. Took a piss off.”
“Storyteller.” The guard shrugged. “Not his gig.”
“Tell that to her nibs up there.” Paladia remarked. “Just don’t do it when she’s got a stick in her hand.”
The guard chuckled. “True.”
The crowd had spotted them, but they attracted little notice as they moved slowly through the campsites and wagons, working their way closer to the stage. “There’s our capn.” The guard pointed. “Maybe he’s seen em?”
Paladia shrugged. “Might as well ask him as anyone.” She turned and headed in his direction, where he was standing with Redder talking to one of the dudes from Athens.
Everyone seemed chill now. Paladia glanced right and left. When she’d come down that morning the whole lot down here had been acting like they had tentpoles shoved up their asses, the soldiers, the marketers, the travelers, all of them whining like hungry dogs.
Pain in the ass. Now they were lounging around like nothing happened.
“Hey Cap.” The guard next to her greeted Bennu.
Bennu and Redder turned, and saw him. “What’cher doing here, Delan?” Redder demanded. “Thought you was at the gate!”
“He’s with me.” Paladia didn’t have time for the bullshit. “I’m looking for that yakking guy from the hills. Gabrielle wants him.” That usually got people moving, and if not she had Xena’s name to throw in if she needed to.
“Oh. Aye.” Bennu nodded at her in greeting. “Sorry bout that, lass, didn’t see ya.” He looked around, looking past the soldiers he was speaking with, as Redder took a step up onto the stage and also began scanning the area. “We’ll find im. Gimme a moment.”
Paladia was content to hang out, letting the two senior militia search as she observed the soldiers relaxing on the stage. She could see some of them talking, some holding sticks or twigs and making motions with their hands she reckoned were mimes of a fight.
Easy to guess which one. Each group had one or two of Xena’s troops with them, and from what she could hear they were all talking about just one thing. “Good thing the nutcase ain’t here.” She exhaled, shaking her head and clasping her arms over her chest.
Though she had to agree that Xena knew how to do what she did. When she fought she did it with a .. Paladia considered. A brutal grace, she decided. She never tripped and fell on her face, or swung wildly or anything like that like most of the rest of then did.
Paladia turned to the Athenian soldier, who was standing next to her with his arms clasped before him. “Yeah?” She acknowledged him shortly. “What do you want?”
He was an older man, grizzled with salt and pepper hair and a neatly trimmed beard bisected along one jaw by a heavy scar. “Man over there said you were the one selling pitchers, in the market like.” He said, gruffly. “Strue?”
Paladia stifled a sigh. “Yeah?” She said. “They’re all gone, since yesterday.” She said. “Then after you bunch of yahoos wrecked the place I wasn’t setting up to do more.”
He nodded. “I saw one. Real nice.” He glanced around and the back at her. “If I tell you what to make, can you make one for me? On a parchment? No need to gussy it all up I can roll it.”
Her thick pale eyebrows knit together. “Like what?” She asked warily. “I’m busy.”
“Them pictures, the ones I saw looked like real.” He said. “Got me a little kid back home. Do me a picture if I tell you?” He asked. “Time I get back home, he’ll be grown.”
Oh. Gods. Goop central. “Yeah, tomorrow.” Paladia said. “I got one or two I’m working on.” She added. “But don’t mess around down here any, k?”
“No fear.” He shook his head again. “We know the score, now. Man lied to us, said … well, doesn’t matter.”
“That one she spliced?”
‘Said he was given the word of the gods.” The man said. “Didn’t know nothing.”
Paladia regarded him dourly. “Anyone around here has the anything of the gods? It’s her.” She stated bluntly. “Don’t screw that up again.”
“Ah there he is.” Redder appeared at her elbow. “That feller there?”
Paladia looked past his elbow. “That’s him.” She angled around the clump of soldiers. “Lemme go bring him to her nibs.” She headed for the man, who was being brought her way with Bennu’s large hand on his elbow, having little choice in the matter.
He was wrapped in his traveling cloak, and had a thick leather strap across his chest holding a bundle to his back and a ragged carrybag hanging off one shoulder.
Packed up, eh? Paladia nodded slightly, as the she watched the man looking around as he was dragged across the floor. “Hey.”
“Ah, hello.” The storyteller said. “So glad I found you! They said you’d gone up to the Amazon village and we had some talk to finish before I leave…”
“They want you up the hill.” Paladia cut him off, enjoying the flinch the words caused. “Gabrielle’s looking for you.” She added. “Wants to talk.”
He licked his lips. “Well.. Don’t think I’ve done anything to warrant any trouble. Just telling some stories, she said I was welcome to.”
Paladia and Bennu exchanged looks.
“Feller.” Bennu shook him. “You all’re coming up w’us.” He turned and let out a low whistle. “Get a escort here for ya.”
“Ah, no need.” The storyteller held a hand up. “I’m happy to get a look at the place. Besides, this lady and I have some business to discuss.” He took on a more courtly air and stood back, gesturing for Paladia to precede him. “No need to trouble yourself sir.”
Bennu and Paladia exchanged another set of looks, and he stood back, watching them as they walked along the edge of the stage together back towards the bridge.
“Gwan.” Benny told Redder, as soon as they were out of earshot. “Don’t like me that feller. Makes my fingers itch.”
Redder nodded. “Bout a score of them went up to the altars. I’m gonna drop a word to Xena while I’m up and about.” He put up the hood on his cloak and slid the fabric around him, covering the black ring and leather half armor with Xena’s patch on it.
He dropped off the stage and went along the edge of it, keeping the two figures in view as he wound through the quieting throngs of visitors.