A Change of Seasons
Xena leaned back against the wall, wishing the whole damn evening was already at an end. The Amazons were almost all gathered in the hall, Jessan and his squad were in the back corner watching with interest, and the juniors were isolated by themselves, guarded by a sword wielding Solari, holding a pair of chobos under one arm.
Across the room, Gabrielle was standing, talking to Ephiny and Eponin in a low tone, the center of attention for the rest of the room as the last stragglers were coming in to find a seat.
Was there any possibility of a happy ending here? Xena reached up to scratch an itch along the edge of one ear. Given her own inclination, she’d have just taken the little brats out and spanked them and then moved on. Most of what was wrong with them wasn’t anything more than needing to live life longer.
They were just kids. Xena exhaled, and crossed her arms, resting her head against the wall’s surface. If she’d only got ahead of it all and it hadn’t become so damn serious. All that snowballing of one thing after another, from the day before the festival right on through…
Xena paused in thought. No, before the festival it had just been normal, everyone very glad it was spring, very glad things were good, sheep were lambing, chickens were laying, crops were growing. Even after Corman had arrived, and the Ithacans, and the Oracle, it had still just seemed like life progressing on.
Then it had gone sideways. Xena shook her head. They hadn’t done anything different, just the festival going on, the two of them dealing with their usual daily things, with Dori, her friends, the Amazons, taking a moment or two out for themselves…
Nothing out of the ordinary. Not even discussing anything really outrageous, just getting Dori a pony, and…
Xena paused in silent thought, as she ran through the past several days, thinking about watching the races, and talking to Gabrielle about…
Talking about a dream she’d had, and the one Gabrielle had, and how they could maybe have it together and figure out what it was they just didn’t remember. Her eyes blinked a few times, the buzz of conversation fading out.
They had tried – and then.. that was the night they got woken up by a runner from her army telling her the Oracle had been hurt.
She had completely forgotten about it, distracted by what had happened after that. They’d been far too busy dealing with everything that had come after.
Coincidence? She pushed off her little seat and went to the window, putting her hands on the sill and staring out into the darkness of the surrounding forest, the smell of pine, and dirt and wood smoke brushing across her face. The oracle hurt. Then Cassy going missing.
Then the oracle being murdered.
No. Xena turned and regarded the inside of the room. Gabrielle glanced over at her, then paused, falling silent and reacting apparently to the expression on her face.
Why was it important to both of them to remember what actually had happened? Was it just the knowledge that something was being hidden from them?
That the gods had gotten one over on them?
The rush of indignant rejection surged over her, automatic denial an emotion that nearly pushed the idea from her head before the cold logic she’d sometimes found at her core stopped it.
Xena remembered then what Jessan had said – that if they had forgotten, maybe there was a reason for it.
Was it possible that just this once the gods knew better? Possible that maybe beings that had lived for eons and eons of experience she did not have could know something she didn’t?
She felt a faint flush of embarrassment as the words sounded inside her head.
Gabrielle came over and put a hand on her arm. “Hon?”
“What’s wrong? You look like you saw a harpy out there.” Gabrielle asked, looking up at her in question. “You okay?”
“Yeah I’m fine.” Xena said. “I was just thinking about the past couple of days.” She added, after a pause. “I figured something out.”
Gabrielle’s expression brightened. “Share?” She invited. “I sure could use some words of wisdom.” She leaned casually against her partner, brows lifting a bit in anticipation.
Did it really mean something?
Was it really all about her?
Something was prodding her gently in the back of her neck and Xena met her partner’s eyes intently. “Sure.” She said. “Remember that whole end of our last adventure in Thrace?”
Gabrielle’s brows knit over the bridge of her nose. “Um.. what brought that up now?”
“As much as I can, sure.” Gabrielle said. “Neither of us could remember the end of it.”
“Right.” Xena put her fingertip against Gabrielle’s lips, leaning closer and staring into her eyes. “We’re never going to, and we’re just going to stop trying.”
Gabrielle’s nostrils flared slightly. “What?”
“What Jess said was right. If it was so important for us not to remember those details, after all the crap we’ve been through we DO remember, we shouldn’t try.” Xena said, slowly. “We don’t need to know.”
Gabrielle considered that in silence briefly, her eyes shifting, then returning to meet Xena’s. “You know, that makes sense.” She said, in a slightly surprised tone. “I mean, it really does, Xe.” She patted her partner on the side. “You’re right.”
Yes I am. Xena felt a prickle of her nape hairs, a faint echo of not a sound, but the pressure of a sound against her eardrums and that sense of inner understanding she’d had now and again when there was something that she just knew.
More importantly, that she just knew to be truth. “Let it go, hon.” She said. “I think it’s important that we do.”
Now Gabrielle looked back up at her again, and her expression shifted slightly. “One of those things?”
“One of those things.”
Xena leaned over and gave her a kiss on the lips, feeling the warmth and familiarity of that ethereal link between them flare as Gabrielle smiled in response. Then they paused and looked at each other, and awareness of the rest of the room flooded in and the moment was past.
“Anyway, should we get this done?” Gabrielle went on. “It’s been a long day.” She gave her another pat. “C’mon. Back me up and intimidate everyone.”
Shoulders relaxing in relief, Xena obediently followed her across the raised area, joining Ephiny and Eponin at the front of it as Gabrielle made a gesture to the crowd for everyone to sit.
She took up a stance behind the queen, folding her arms as the Amazons took their seats, the young juniors under guard shrinking together a little, huddling under all those eyes looking at them, feeling the weight of the unspoken accusations.
Of course, everyone knew now. Senior warriors were shaking their heads, elders were frowning. What Cait had found had spread through the tribe, along with relief at knowing at last how things happened.
“Amazons.” Gabrielle’s voice filled the space without effort. “We come here in judgement.” She came to stand at the front of the raised platform, hands on her hips.
Eponin shifted to stand next to Xena. “What a day.” She muttered, under her breath.
“What a day.” Xena echoed, as she watched Tarah stand up and tentatively lift her hand up for attention. ‘Ah, c’mon. Let’s just get this over with.”
“Just take it.” Eponin chimed in, with a sigh. “I was leading hunting parties at her age.” She glanced up at Xena, whose lips twitched.
“I was leading an army.” Xena uttered back. “Kids these days.”
Pony snorted under her breath.
“Your majesty.” The junior said. “Can I say something please, first?” She looked around at the group around her. “Please?” She looked up at Gabrielle, her bravura abruptly shed.
Gabrielle walked over and regarded her, head slightly tilted to one side, studying her face. “You may.” She said, quietly. “But you’ve said a lot. Try not to make things worse.”
“I know.” Tarah drew in a breath shakily. “We did something really stupid and I’m sorry. It’s my fault. I talked everyone into it.” She got the words out, standing up and wringing her hands together. “Whatever’s going to happen, do it to me. Not them.”
“Crap.” Pony muttered, in surprise. “Didn’t expect that.”
Xena remained silent, shifting her stance slightly and putting her hands clasped behind her back.
Gabrielle stepped down off the raised platform and went over to the girl, coming to stand in front of her, their eyes almost at a level.
She could see the fast beating heart at her throat and how scared she was, her fingers trembling as they twisted together. “So, let me ask you a question.” Gabrielle said, in a conversational tone. “What is you think I should do? To you or anyone here?”
Ephiny glanced down, suppressing a smile, and then she looked over at Xena who wasn’t bothering to hide hers.
Tarah looked at her for a very long moment, absorbing the gentle kindness in the sound of her voice, reflected in the fire tinted green eyes watching her. “I don’t know.” She answered finally. “I didn’t mean any of the bad things to happen and then.. “She exhaled. “I couldn’t stop.”
“Uh huh.” Gabrielle nodded a little bit.
“I just wanted Jax to like me. Not hurt anyone.” Tarah finished in a small voice. “It’s hard to explain.”
Gabrielle hitched her thumbs into her tooled leather belt, pausing to glance around the room, and then meet Xena’s eyes before she returned her attention to the youngster. “Y’know, I was just thinking about the fact that the other night, you were part of a sacrifice to the gods.”
Tarah blinked at her. “Um.”
“Specifically, to the goddess of love, Aphrodite.” Gabrielle said. “She’s kinda got a quirky sense of humor.” She added wryly. “And when she’s appealed to, with such a heartfelt offering, she’s been known to deliver.”
Tarah looked down at the ground.
“Your friend Jax is fine.” Gabrielle said. “Xena rescued him.”
Tarah’s head jerked up and she inhaled sharply, looking past Gabrielle to where Xena was standing. “You did?”
“She did.” Gabrielle said. “If you want to go with him, you’re free to.” She added. “With a stake from the tribe and my best wishes.”
Tarah looked uncertainly at her.
“If you don’t, that’s okay too.” The queen said. “We’ve all been young and done stupid things.” She extended her hand to the girl. “Judgement is over. Let’s all go get some rest.”
Xena looked around the room and saw heads nodding, Amazons already shifting and getting ready to stand up and finish their day, the chaos finally over, cups of mulled wine waiting before bed for all of them.
She released her hands and went over to where Gabrielle was standing, the juniors all looking embarrassed but relieved, Tarah clasping Gabrielle’s hand in both of hers.
She looked up as Xena arrived. “Thank you.”
Xena put her arm around Gabrielle’s shoulders and gave her a kiss on her head. “No problem.” She said. “He’s waiting over by the dining hut. Has something he wants to say to ya.”
“He’s… here?” Tarah hesitated. “I thought the law…”
“Yeah well.” Xena smiled at her. “I’ve been known to break laws.”
“Let’s all go over to the dining hut.” Gabrielle said. “I could use a drink.” She wrapped her arm around Xena as the crowd started to disperse, all the tension in the room released, everyone seemingly satisfied with the end result.
Gabrielle thought about that. Then she put it aside, and let the day go, wanting now to just have the day done, and go home with her family, looking intensely forward to tumbling into bed with Xena and have it all be over.
It was dark, and very cold, and Cait realized as it happened that she’d gone past the outcropping below the bluff and now she was in a fast flow of the creek going downhill.
She got her head above water and sucked in a breath, and then she was pulled under again and she threw her hands out, slamming against rocks on either side of her.
It hurt. She tried to get herself reoriented, but the force of the water made it hard to get upright and she bounced between two large boulders before she could get her head up again and then as she broke the surface the night noises were overran by a roar.
Cait looked forward and the moonlight outlined the edge of the waterfall and she knew she was going to go over it and that her hunt for Xena had ended up with her maybe following her mentor into a very bad place.
She had a moment to be scared, and realized, as she got herself aligned in the current that she wasn’t. That was quite odd, because she felt she should be, there seemed a great chance that going over the edge of that drop was likely to end up with her badly hurt.
Had Xena gone this way? She might have. Cait felt the force of the water building as it rushed to the edge. She must have, and if Cait’s cutting of that rope perhaps had led her here?
Well, that was all right then. She felt her body relax, as she thought about dying, which was something that could happen to you after all in any battle and she’d already been in the underworld.
She’d done quite a lot, really, for someone her age and now it seemed she was going to go over a waterfall and so instead of being afraid, she got herself ready for that, sensing the motion, and the impending release, and she wondered if it wouldn’t be a little bit like flying?
Would it feel like what it was to be Xena, for a moment?
Cait smiled and as she reached the edge of the falls she threw herself forward as best she could and spread her arms out into the air as the force threw her up and out and she was free of the water but surrounded by its mist as the moon lit the frothy surface beneath her.
It was unexpectedly awesome. She took the moment for her own and savored the courage of it, before the water gathered her back in and she threw her arms out in front of her to break the impact as she reached the bottom and plunged into the stream again.
No time for the falls to beat down on her the current sucked her forward and then she was leaving the roar behind as the flooding rush kept moving downhill.
Cait felt a hand grab her by the belt as she tumbled over the rocks and into the washout, coughing and spluttering, yanked out of the water and onto the boggy ground. “Peh!” She yelped in surprise. “Hello!”
“How the Hades did you get out here?” A torch flared, lighting a ring of militia faces at the edge of the bog just shy of the riverside. “We were hunting out here to find any more of those jerks and out you come!”
Cait sat up and coughed, relieved to see friends since she was a bit too rattled to have had it be enemies. “Well.” She looked around. “First things first, have you seen Xena?” She recognized the closest of them. “Hello, Dano.”
The militia were all nodding in response to her as they gathered around, blocking the wind coming down the ravine behind them. Six sturdy men, local, homegrown residents who split their time between farming and fighting and all known to her.
Xena’s, as she was.
“Sure, we saw her.” Dano hunkered down next to her. “She came outta here with a gaggle of boys a candlemark ago, went back up the hill. That’s why we were out here searchin, seeing if there was any of that lot left.”
Cait exhaled in relief. “Great.” She spat out a bit of river weed. “Terribly glad to hear it. I was tracking her and last I could find was her going into the creek up by the village.”
“She was wet when I saw her.” Dano agreed. “Wet like you are.” He added. “Want my cloak? It’s cold out here.” He offered. “We got a fire up by the gate, too.”
Cait stood up, aware of her entire body shaking. “Fire sounds really good actually.” She admitted. “I wasn’t quite expecting to have to do that, with the waterfall and all.”
“Let’s go.” Dano and the rest started back towards the slope, and the line of torches that outlined the path from the gates to the river. “Ah, there’s the pyre lit.”
Cait looked across the river to the market, and saw the light against the dark sky, and she paused, shivering. “Bother.” She exhaled. “I should pay respects there. Three of those bodies are Amazons.”
Dano took off his cloak and put it over her shoulders. “We’ll go with you.” He said. “We can get some hot wine too.” He winked at his companions, who chuckled. “Nothing left to search for now anyway, right?”
About to demur, Cait clamped her jaw shut instead and they went on, angling down towards the bridge instead of up towards the town. She was surprised there weren’t Amazons there, really. Perhaps they’d thought it was being held in the morning.
Ah well. Just one more thing to get through.
Paladia led the way up the trail, hoping like crazy it would be her last trek up for the day. She was aware of the storyteller behind her, tripping a little in the gloom only sporadically lit by torches. “Careful. If you fall down your ass is rolling all the way back to that gate.”
“Yes.” Simon said. “It’s quite a climb. Couldn’t you have put your houses closer to the town? Those folks seem to like you lot.” He said. “Someone there said something about Xena, and that innkeeper smacked them with a frypan.”
Paladia paused to let him catch up and spare him an amused look. “Dumbass morons to mess with that woman.”
“That’s Xena’s mother.” She clarified. “Lucky it was just a frypan not one of those pigstickers they keep in the kitchen.”
“Oh.” Simon murmured. “Didn’t catch that I guess.” He took a breath. “Steep path.”
“You get used to it.” Paladia plugged stolidly uphill. “C’mon, move it. I want to get to my bed.” She spared a thought for the surprisingly comfortable place she and the nutcase had put together, imaging she could feel the weird multi animal carpet in front of the fire under her feet.
It was good. It was a lot better now since she’d been more or less accepted by the rest of the tribe and they’d moved up here, where there was plenty of space and less crap and they got left alone a lot since everyone else was busy getting into all the new stuff and places they’d found.
Life was pretty much okay, and she’d made a belt pouch full of coin in the market. Not bad at all. She could chill out and just do some sketching now that stuff was sprouting and crap and there were some interesting plants around again.
“So hey listen.” Simon jogged to catch up to her again. “You’re a great artist.”
Paladia gave him a sideways look. “Yeah. And?”
“So. You could make a fortune in Athens.” He said. “Or anywhere, really.” He said. “Why stay here? If you wanted to travel a little, I could show you around.”
“Yeah? What can a fortune buy you that I ain’t got?” She asked, as they started up a steeper section, before the ridge that split off to the Amazon village.
“Fame?” Simon said. “You could have all the patricians coming to you for commissions. A nice palace, servants, you name it.”
Paladia regarded him momentarily in silence. “What’s the down side?” She asked. “To being all this famous stuff?”
He shrugged. “None that I know of.”
“Then you don’t know crap.” Paladia pointed to the right as they reached the top of the path. “Being famous is bullshit. I’ve seen what that’s like, and no thanks, buddy.” She let out a whistle as they approached the gates, which started to swing open. “You can keep it.”
“Really?” He followed her cautiously inside as she gave a casual hand signal to the guard.
“Really.” Paladia paused. “Have everyone coming to get you to do things and take care of things, and all that crap? All kinds of expectations and whatever? Gross. Screwballville.”
Simon looked a bit dumbfounded. “But you’d be in charge.”
“Hahahahhaa. No.” Paladia said. “Don’t want to be in charge of nothing but myself.” She glanced at the two scouts who were loitering near the entrance. “That nutcase come back through here yet?” She asked, as the portal swung to. “She find her buddy?”
“Not yet.” Posi said, glancing at Simon. “Xena’s back though. Just came through here with some guys wet as washrag.” She reported. “Didn’t seem like she needed to be found.”
“Figures.” Paladia muttered. “They ain’t learned yet to just leave her the Hades alone and not to go chasing around after her. Ends up a dipshit dog run every time.”
Posi chuckled. “True that.” She admitted. “I’ll keep an eyeball out.”
“C’mon. Probably have to go get her to go find her little raised by wolves trainee.” The tall ex renegade started across the central square, which was now very quiet and abandoned. She could see torches lit in the gathering hall though, and she paused near the edge of the fire pit to decide which way to go.
Simon was looking around. “Wow.” He said. “Bigger than I thought it would be.”
“Yeah, goes all the way back and into the hills.” His escort said. “Got another two valleys up in the beyond too. Just started growing fruit trees back there.” She added. “Cooler in the summer, not so windy in the winter. “
Simon glanced around, taking in the well-built structures and neatly laid out paths. “I see.”
Paladia squinted, but she couldn’t see far enough down the path that led to Gabrielle’s quarters to see if there was any action there. “Let’s go over there.” She pointed towards the gathering hall and they went down that path, with the dining hall on the left.
“So, what do they want me for?” Simon asked after they’d walked a minute.
“Don’t know, didn’t ask.” Paladia said, shortly. “Gabrielle wanted to talk to you is all I know.”
“Well, how dangerous could that be.” Simon chuckled. “A sweet, talented lady.”
Paladia stopped and looked at him. “You really that stupid?” She asked in mild astonishment.
“Gabrielle, the storyteller?” He queried. “That’s who we’re talking about right?”
Paladia put her hands on her hips. “You do know she runs this place, yeah?”
He shook his head. “C’mon, I’ve been here a few days and I saw. Xena runs this place.” He objected. “” That’s her army down there.”
“She runs Xena.”
Simon looked at her in silence. “What?”
“She runs Xena.” Paladia repeated placidly. “C’mon” She grabbed his arm and started for the gathering hall, glad when she saw the door open and some Amazon warriors start to pile out. “Looks like no one died.” She remarked, noting the casual attitudes. “Good. Nutcase’d be pissed off if she missed any of that.”
“Sometimes you get to see someone’s neck broken in those things.” Paladia got to the entrance just as Gabrielle, Xena, and the rest of the poobah party were coming down the center aisle, along with the stupid kids. “Hey.” She addressed the queen.
“Hey.” Gabrielle returned her greeting. “Great, you found him.”
“Hi.” Simon uttered.
“Xe, want to take em over to the dining hall? I need to talk to Simon.” Gabrielle moved to the side to let her pass. “I’ll meet you over there in a few.”
Simon looked up to find Xena looking at him, her piercing eyes almost silver in the reflected firelight and he took a step back in reflex because it seemed to him that she was more looking right through him and he shivered just a little, remembering seeing her fight.
In that moment, the stories he’d heard Gabrielle tell had taken on a sharper clarity. He’d enjoyed them, sure, but at the time they’d seemed like tall tales, exaggerations like the ones he himself told in turning tales – as all good storytellers did.
Then from behind the watering trough he was hiding behind he’d seen her come flying over the wagon blockade and with his own eyes watched those stories become real, and violent and full of blood. Battle yells had turned to screams and she’d laughed.
She’d laughed. Simon could hear the echo of it, in his head.
“Don’t take long.” Xena said after an awkward pause. “Or I’ll have to come back after you.”
“Thanks hon.” Gabrielle patted her on the back, either unaware or undisturbed by the audible threat in her voice, and the rest of them moved past and left them alone in the hall.
Gabrielle detoured to a table at the side of the room and indicated a seat across from her. Simon sat down and rested his elbows on the table, and then he waited.
For a long moment, Gabrielle studied him, and then she copied his pose, leaning on her elbows and folding her hands in front of her. “Okay.” She said,. “We’ve figured out a lot in the last few candlemarks but I’d like to clear up a few last things and I think you can help me.”
He relaxed a little. “Sure. What can I tell you?” He responded. “it’s been quite a day!”
Gabrielle rubbed the top of one hand with the thumb of the other, and the torchlight in the room glinted briefly off the ring circling one finger. “We lost three sisters in the fight.” She glanced up, watching him steadily.
Simon nodded. “The two older ladies and a younger one.”
“Renas, and her partner Das, and Aalene, who was a good friend.” Gabrielle clarified. “Paladia told me you sent for them, just before the fight started. I’d like to know why?” She asked. “They shouldn’t have been down there when they were killed.”
“Ah. Oh.” Simon said, after a silent pause. “Well, that’s a little complicated.”
“I got a little friendly with the Ithacans.” He finally said. “I know they were wrapped up in all the shenanigans going on, but they were pretty nice guys.”
One of Gabrielle’s pale eyebrows arched and lifted.
“So anyway.” Simon glanced away, and then back at her. “When it all was going wrong, they .. well, they were looking to get out of the way, as it were.”
“They were going to run?”
He nodded. “Got too much for them you know? They just came here to deliver an offering to Ares, after all.”
“Yeah, that’s what everyone was supposed to be here for.” Gabrielle sighed. “Before it all went crazy, and people started dying.”
“Being killed.” Simon corrected her, in a gentle voice. “That’s what shook everyone up. It was like, people made an offering to the gods, and the next thing that happens is one of their oracles gets choked to death. What does that mean?”
“Okay, since you asked.” Gabrielle leaned forward a little. “It means the oracle bought some lotion that was meant to juice up his manhood and he tried it out on some kid up at the altar.”
Simon straightened up and stared at her. He took a breath to speak, then made a small face. “Ah.”
“So, then someone tried to intervene and ended up scaring him so badly he ran down the stairs. Didn’t realize he’d gotten some of the lotion on his boots and he slipped and cracked his head on the step.” Gabrielle concluded. “So, whoever choked him either did it for that, or to keep him quiet.”
“The girl who confessed.” Simon said. “So that was why!” He put both hands on the table, a wondering look on his face. “They all thought… why didn’t you tell the lot of them?”
Gabrielle studied him in silence for a long moment. “Would they have believed me?” She countered. “Wouldn’t they have just thought he could do as he liked? Ares Oracle?” Her voice sharpened. “Anyway, they assumed Xena killed him.”
Simon gazed thoughtfully at her. “Those stories you told weren’t lies.” He sounded a bit apologetic. “They sounded fantastic, but then…” He paused.
“But then a lot of people died.” Gabrielle sighed. “My point in telling those stories was to try and keep that from happening.”
“I realize that now.” Simon murmured. “But… she could have, isn’t that right?”
“No.” She shifted a little, clasping her hands together. “She couldn’t have.”
“Ah.” Simon also folded his hands together again. “And you knew because you know her so well, as I have heard.”
“I knew because we were in bed together all night.” Gabrielle responded, with a touch of droll humor. “We both got woken up by the watch coming to get her to try and save his sorry ass since Xe’s the best healer in the area.”
“Oh.” Simon flushed a little in embarrassment. “Sorry.”
“I wasn’t.” Gabrielle responded. “So, now, you were telling me about the Ithacans?” She added, with a patient expression. “And why you had my people sent for in the middle of a dangerous situation?”
He exhaled. “All right. It was like this. They’d made enemies in the town, and with your Amazons here. None trusted them.” He said. “And, no one wanted to talk to them, so they came to me.”
“They’d been so wrapped up with the Ares people, they didn’t get all the things they wanted in the market, so they asked me to intercede for them and make some deals.”
Gabrielle considered the words, evaluating their possible truth.
“They had a lot of coin, wanted to spend it.” Simon clarified. “You’ve got some really skilled crafters here. That artist is amazing.”
“They were going to leave, wanted to get some pieces from the older ladies before they went.” Simon concluded. “I didn’t think about how it would be dangerous. So much was going on.”
Truth? “What was in it for you?”
Simon shrugged a little, separating his hands and lifting them up slightly. “Ten percent of the fee, I get to pocket. Wasn’t much call for my other skills here, so at least I’d be able to eat back out on the road.” He grinned briefly. “I’m sure you remember what that was like.”
Hm. “I do.” Gabrielle agreed. “Let me ask you this… when they got down into the market, you remember which way they came?” She asked. “Across the bridge?”
But he was shaking his head as she was talking. “No, and that was quite a story in itself. They were wet as hens when they came up, said they had to swim the river because of the soldiers, and that child they had with them led them across.” He added. “Said they’d strung a rope across, as a ford.”
“Then all Hades broke loose.” Simon said. “They started shooting, and I ran.” He admitted frankly. “I’m no fighter.” He glanced around. “Not like everyone in this place is. I hid in the racing paddock with those horses. I saw that Amazon come up from the river, in fact, and kill one of the soldiers.”
“Is that her name? She’s friends with the artist.” Simon agreed. “She let the horses loose. I almost got trampled.” He added. “They were surrounded over there, with that artist swinging a club around but then that Amazon got there and that was that.”
In her peripheral vision, Gabrielle became aware of a shadow in the doorway. “Why were they surrounded?” She asked, in an almost offhand tone. “I would have thought everyone was busy with the bridge.”
Simon didn’t answer for a long moment. “I don’t know.” He finally said.
Lie. Gabrielle slowly focused her attention on him. ‘I mean, that’s weird, right?” She said. “All the soldiers are getting ready to meet the militia, and with those blockades and all that – who pays attention to a couple of Amazons cleaning up their market stall?”
Simon just blinked at her.
“I want to know why my people died, Simon.” Gabrielle said, after the silence between them had lengthened. “Who was it that attacked them? Was it the soldiers from Athens?”
“I couldn’t really see.”
Gabrielle glanced up and past him for a brief instant, and then, in utter silence Xena appeared, moving across the room without the slightest creak of a floorboard or scuff of leather to take a seat next to her, resting her hands on the table.
And then, the light pattern of boots running, and the door opened, Solari’s dark head appearing. “Your maj.” She said. “They just sent a runner up – seems like they’re putting the bodies on the pyre now.”
Solari nodded. “Yeah, Benny didn’t want to wait for morning.”
Gabrielle looked at Xena.
“I told him to clean up.” Xena admitted. “He knows me.”
“Okay.” Gabrielle stood. “Let’s go down.” She looked at Simon. “We can talk on the way.”
Cait and her little gang arrived next to the pyre just as a squad of militia were setting one last pile of split logs on it, causing a drift of sparks to soar into the air, outlined against the dark sky.
A crowd of the Athenian soldiers were gathered, rather smaller than what she’d remembered, and an equal or greater number of locals were drifting over to observe.
The dead soldiers had been wrapped in linen, laid out in straight rows with their weapons, and then to one side, separately, were the bodies of the three Amazons. “Idiotic.” Cait said, with a shake of her head. “So terribly unnecessary.”
“Fought a good fight.” Dano protested mildly.
“Oh, they did not.” Cait gave him a look. “Xena cut them down like rabbits. I was there. I saw it.”
“Cut down the loudmouth, that was for sure. But he was the dumb one. He coulda stopped it right there, not be jackass, and made up with her.” Dano responded. “Pride wouldn’t let im.”
“Stupid.” Cait muttered, as Bennu came over to stand next to her, his curly hair ruffling in the wind. “Hello.”
“Hallo there Cait.” Bennu said. “What happened to ya?” He asked. “Been swimming? Crazy that, wet like Xena was.”
“We fell down the same bit of mountain.” Cait said. “But nevermind that. Have you told them up the hill about this?” She indicated the pyre. “I think that lot would want to be here.”
“Aye, sent word up.” Bennu nodded. “Wanted to get this done before morning. Leaves a bad taste in the day.” He studied the pile of bodies. “Guess they’re down the Styx now, eh?”
Cait folded her arms across her chest. “You know, I’m not terribly sure how that works.” She commented thoughtfully. “What do you think? Would they go to Tartarus or Elysia? Tartarus for being bad soldiers or Elysia for following their orders?”
Bennu settled next to her, his thumbs in his sword belt, the fire outlining his rugged, honest face. “Never thought about that much.” He admitted. “Weren’t bad, really. Just were up against a better.”
“The best.” Cait said, with a faint smile.
“Aye, that she is.” Bennu also smiled. “I knew, Y’know? Would come to it. Like when she came to the city, yeah? We’d heard the stories. None of us believed them.” He looked at Cait. “Not until she’d proven on our bodies and hers, what it is to be what she is.”
“Hm.” Cait grunted softly under her breath.
“Been fighting since my mam kicked me out of the farm. Maybe I was ten.” Bennu smiled again. “Thought I knew how, had scars on me, taken my own share of kills, Y’know? Then she came, and I felt I was ten all over again. Just like a child.” He glanced around. “Like them lot feel now.”
“You have to keep refreshing the blood.” Cait said, in a low, but clear voice. “Stories aren’t enough are they?” She listened to the crackling of the fire, that would soon consume the mortal remains of the men Xena had killed. A few she had killed.
And the three Amazons.
“Somethin like that.” Bennu said. “Won’t change. Specially now with that shrine there, drawing them that follow him here. She knows it.”
“Yes, I think she does.” Cait glanced to the side, as the townsfolk drifted over, looking somber and somewhat mysterious in the shadows. She could see Cyrene there, and Gabrielle’s family, and Granella and Toris, and behind them, warily, some of the visitors who’d remained.
“Big group of them went up to the mountain.” Bennu jerked his jaw towards the soldiers. “Sent a squad with em to make sure they didn’t make no trouble.”
“Spot on.” Cait was glad of the cloak, as the wind sharpened. She wished the whole thing were done, suddenly, wanting nothing more than a hot cup of tea, and the fire in their quarters. Even Pally’s ruder comments would be welcome after what had ended up being a very long day.
“Here comes the genr’l.” Torsten came up next to them. He let out a low whistle, and a score of the militia stirred, moving over towards the stack of wrapped bodies. “Looking forward to this being done.”
Cait looked over her shoulder and saw a large group of people crossing the bridge, Xena’s tall form easily distinguished near the front of them. As they came closer, she could see most of the Amazons she knew, including Pally and she exhaled in satisfaction. “Absolutely.” She agreed with Torsten. “Let’s have it done.”
Xena kept half an ear on the conversation between Gabrielle and Simon and half an ear on the casual chatter around her as she walked just a step behind her partner. Everyone was a little surprised at the summons but not outrageously so.
Made sense actually, that Bennu would want to get everything buttoned up before the end of the day – after all it’s what Xena herself had taught him to do. Question in her mind was why she hadn’t made sure that happened?
Too busy? Xena let her glance flick around the path. Maybe, what with all the falling down waterfalls and all that crap. “Hey Solari.”
The senior warrior caught up. “Yup?”
“Anyone find Cait yet?”
“Not yet.” Solari said. “You know her though she’ll be out there hunting till she finds ya. Maybe we’ll cross paths on the way down.”
“Told them not to go chasing after you.” Paladia spoke up glumly from the other side of Xena. “Probably climbing every damned tree in the forest by now.”
Xena smiled briefly. “I’m used to it.”
Fingers curled around hers suddenly and she looked aside to see Gabrielle looking up at her. “Meant to demonstrate my love.” Gabrielle said. “As if I actually needed to.”
“Urgh” Paladia rolled her eyes, and Solari chuckled.
“Hey, you opened the gates of Persephone. Want me to tell that one?” Gabrielle asked, giving her a sideways look. “In all this chaos around Ares, sometimes I think we forget we give Aphrodite equal time here.”
They reached the bottom of the path and swept through the open gates, now guarded by the usual two militia, who casually saluted Xena as she passed. “Hopefully this is the end of it, boys.” Xena said, returning the wave. “Then we can all get some sleep.”
“Good saying, Xena.”: The militia on the left said. “Everyone’s down by the fire, but they’re waiting on ya.”
They paraded quickly through the town and out the front gates, down the slope towards the river. Torches were lit everywhere, and there was a guard on the bridge, who half turned and let out a whistle in the other direction as they came towards it.
“Should we have sent word up to our cabin?” Gabrielle said, suddenly. “In case Jess or someone comes down and finds everyone gone?”
“Too late.” Xena said. “With any luck they’ll just have the sense to stay put.”
Gabrielle looked at her, even the shadows the hiked eyebrow visible.
“I know.” Xena sighed. “Just cross your damn fingers.”
Jess relaxed in the leather chair, his hand curled around one of Gabrielle’s quills, scratching away on a piece of parchment he’d borrowed from her work table. One of his guard was seated in the other chair, working on sharpening his sword, the rest were either on the porch or dispersed around the cabin in a solid ring.
The children – his three, Dori and Cari were all bunked down in Dori and Cari’s room, blissfully sleeping.
There was a pot of water on the fire, and a skin of early raw wine on the table along with a platter of dried meat and nuts from their stores.
No chances were being taken. Jessan continued his writing, recording all that had happened to them since they’d arrived in Amphipolis, as Gabrielle had asked him to do.
They would stay put, the kids would stay put, they would guard the place until Xena and Gabrielle returned and tomorrow morning in the light of a new day they would go home.
A sense of order had returned. Somewhat.
“Crazy couple days.” His guard said, after a quiet moment inspecting the surface of his blade.
“Shh.” Jessan stuck his tongue out. “Pretend it’s all normal. Don’t trigger anything, Dustin.”
Dustin regarded him. “Okay.” He agreed amiably. “We taking the mountain route or the river tomorrow?”
“Mountain.” Jessan said. “I’m not risking us meeting Ares knows what on the road.”
“Tough on the horses.”
“They’ll make it. Gabrielle told me she took Argo down the ridge.”
Dustin eyed him.
“That’s how they ended up at our front door that time.” Jessan clarified. “When they were being chased by.. was it Spartans?”
“Fake Spartans? I forget. That was crazy too.”
“Story of their lives”
A soft sound echoed from outside and both forest dwellers stiffened. Jessan stood and put the quill and parchment down on the table, then circled the couch and went to the door with Dustin at his heels, sheathing his sword as he moved.
“Where’d she go?” Tarah whispered, peering down the path. “We have to find her!”
Jax looked nervously past her. “Look, we’re not supposed to be messing around up here.” He hissed. “Where’d everyone go?”
Tarah edged past the gates, which were opened and unguarded. “Who knows? No one tells us anything anyway.” She looked inside the guard alcove, finding nothing but a wineskin half emptied, and a stack of half made arrows. “She was hurt. We all know it. She can’t have gone far.”
“Stupid Sali.” Gena muttered, from behind her. “Tarah, we should go back to the shack. She’s gotten us into enough trouble already.”
“And leave our sister behind? That what you learned out of all of this?” Tarah said, sharply. “We still don’t’ know what’s going to happen to us, Gi. If we can at least show the queen we’re responsible for the rest of us it’ll be good.”
“Mm.” Gena muttered. “Yeah, maybe.”
“We’ll help.” Jax suggested meekly. “I mean, help find her. We can take these torches and look.” He pointed at the ones in the gate sconces. “If she’s so bad hurt, I mean, like you said she can’t be far.”
Tarah smiled at him. “Thanks, Jax.” She glanced around and lowered her voice. “When they said the rope was cut I.. “She paused. “Anyway.”
“Oh, I woulda been a goner.” Jax agreed, nodding. “That Xena though. Wow. She grabbed me out of the air like I was a stick.” He paused. “What is she anyway? She’s really different isn’t she?”
“Let’s find Sali first then we can talk about that.” Tarah said. “Which way you think she went, Balas? You’re the tracker.”
The shortest of them all, a curly red-haired adolescent of few words came forward. “You stay here.” Balas said. “I’ll look.” She took one of the torches and edged out into the main part of the path, keeping the light as close to the ground as she could. “No good here. Whole damn herd went down this way.”
Balas turned and made her way up the slope, moving in a near crouch and then, as she reached the edge of the fork she paused, and knelt. Then she extended one hand to touch the earth, raising it to her nose. “Blood.” She said, briefly. “She went up.”
“Great.” Tarah repeated, with an exasperated exhale. “C’mon.”
“Think she went to the shrines?” Gena said. “That’d be my bet. Trying to get one of them to make it all go away.”
“Yeah.” Tarah nodded. “Let’s go see if the lines are down. In any case if they are we need to get them up before something else happens up here.”
“Stupid bitch.” Gena muttered. “Brains of a damned warthog.”
Jax eyed her in some alarm but took a torch and motioned his two friends forward as they joined the group heading up the path. “I thought you had to go out and around the river road to get to the shrines?” He finally asked, as they climbed.
“We don’t.” Tarah said. “There’s a way from up here, past the queen’s house.” She said. “It’s how we get there, and the guys from town.”
They came to the rope bridge over the ravine and fell silent as they crossed it, the wind blowing against them as it came down the break in the ridge, bringing the smell of the forest and below them faintly the sound of rushing water.
“This is creepy.” Jax said, as they got to the other side.
Balas knelt at the far side again and looked at the ground. “She went this way.” She confirmed. “Her boot’s got a cracked heel and the grounds wet here.” She stood. “But there’s also fresh wolf tracks though.”
“Wolf!” One of Jax’s buddies said. “We’ve only got belt knives!”
“Could be friendly.” Balas looked at him with a touch of amusement. “Never know up here.” She added. “They’re big enough to be Ares.”
“What?” The youth started to back away. “Wait a minute. We didn’t sign on for this, Jax.”
“Typical.” Gena said.
“I’m going.” Jax straightened up. “I’m going to help Tarah, like I promised. You chickenshits can go back down to town if you want.” He pointed back down the path. “You were only in it for the payout anyway.”
“Too right.” His friend readily agreed. “C’mon Tanny. Let’s go back and get a cup of grog and wait for this idiot back there.”
The two others took one torch and started back down the path, shaking their heads.
“Good riddance.” Balas continued up the slope. “Let’s get this over with and find her before they all get back.”
Tarah put her hand on Jax’s arm as they followed. “Thanks.”
Xena was glad to see Cait’s figure by the fire as they arrived on the fringe of the market, noting the cloak wrapped around her and her still damp hair. “You end up going in the creek?”
“Yes.” Cait agreed as she exchanged brief smiles with her partner. “The waterfall bit was quite exciting.”
“I liked it.” Xena said, in a mild tone. “You the one who cut me loose?”
“Yes.” Cait admitted. “Didn’t know you were on there, of course.”
“No way you could have.” Xena clapped her on the back. “If I’da found those damn ropes I’da cut them in a heartbeat. Good job.”
Cait felt a warm rush of relief come over her, almost making her sleepy. It had been the right choice. She’d known it was the right choice, and yet. “Even though it caused you a bit of trouble?”
“Ended up fine.” Xena dismissed it with a shrug. “All part of the greater good.” She motioned to Bennu. “Get this started, Benny. Got a warm bed waiting for me.”
“Aye.” Bennu smiled, as his leader put her arm around Gabrielle, who leaned close, the stiff breeze tangling their hair together. “G’wan you lot. Put em on the fire.”
Xena was glad the wind was from the river, coming past them as the first of the soldier’s bodies was laid on the pyre and the flames consumed it. She watched, thinking about the fight, about the soldiers, who had tied up merchants as a shield.
She felt no guilt, not even the slightest twinge of it, knowing she’d done her job as a warrior, a defender of her people, and as the leader of her army. From the corner of her eye she could see the watching soldiers, looking at her in awe.
“Wonder where all the Ares guys are?” Gabrielle commented. “I saw them leave the town.”
“Shrine.” Bennu answered briefly. “Redder’s up there watchin. Ithacans up there too.”
Xena and Gabrielle exchanged looks, unspoken communication passing between them as though a visible cloud of fireflies in the air.
“Shall I..” Cait started.
“No.” Xena shook her head. “Jess and his men are protecting the only real thing of value on that mountain. Those shrines… have their own guardians.”
Paladia gave Xena an emphatic thumbs up, firmly fastening her hand in the fabric of the cloak Cait was wearing, and nodding. “About freaking time someone made some freaking sense in this freaking place.”
Gabrielle was still and silent for a long, thoughtful moment, then she slid her arm around Xena’s waist, drew in and released a long breath. “What she said.”
Xena returned her attention to the pyre, as the sparks consumed another body, her soldiers working through the pile of Athenian dead and saving the Amazons for a separate, last farewell.
“Stay here.” Jessan ordered, as he came out on the porch, and his guards gathered around him. “All of you go back to your posts, and don’t let anything leave or enter this house.”
“And you’re going?” Dirk asked, skeptically.
“We’re going to find out what that noise was.” Jessan said, motioning Dustin forward. “Just over to the path.” He turned and watched the other forest dwellers go back around the cabin, Dirk staying where he’d been, on the porch.
“Maybe we should just stay put too?” Dustin suggested. “It was probably a fox or something.”
“Probably.” Jessan muttered. “But with my luck it’s a centaur looking for a three headed rabbit carrying a message from Hades realm.”
“Eh.” Dustin grimaced. “Rather not hear that story again.”
“Rather not tell it.” Jessan said.
“The Ares part was pretty cool though.” The other forest dweller conceded. “I mean, y’know?”
Jessan was briefly silent, then he smiled, just a bit. “Yeah it was. Scared me furless but I’m glad I was there when I was there and did what I did. I think it was worth it.”
Dustin glanced at him. “Kinda like us being here for all this.”
Jessan pondered that thoughtfully. “Maybe.” He admitted. “Maybe so.”
They walked side by side to the rock lined path and stepped into it, pausing to listen, ears cocked. The sounds traveling up to them from the lower passage were uneven footsteps, thrumming gently against the packed earth path, rhythmic and bipedal and distinct.
“That’s not a fox.” Dustin said, in a mournful voice. “But I don’t think it’s a centaur either.”
Jessan moved to the top of the rise and looked down the path, seeing a cluster of shadows moving up towards them. He drew his sword and walked to a point between two trees that allowed him to block the way. “Who goes there?” He yelled, his voice booming out between the leaves. “Halt!”
“That never works.” Dustin said, in a mournful tone. “Not in these parts.”
A woman’s scream answered, and they both bounded down the path almost barreling into a small clump of people who were trying to get out of the way in a frantic mass of flailing arms and feet.
Amazon, he recognized the scent, and human.
A torch flared and he threw up one hand to block his eyes from the light and then he could barely make out a body coming towards him. “Hey! Stop!”
He let out a growl of warning, baring his teeth as the torchlight came at him from the left-hand side and he swept his sword in front of him as Dustin came to stand shoulder to shoulder with him. “Stop!” He repeated. “It’s Jessan!”
“What!?” A male voice blurted.
“No wait, it is Jessan.” A woman’s lighter tone answered. “Hold on.. hold on everybody just chill out!”
Jessan blinked, and then the torch drew back and a woman came forward, dressed in Amazon leathers, holding out her hands in a placating gesture. “It’s Tarah.” He said, in surprise. “Weren’t you supposed to be…” He looked around in reflex. “I mean…Gabrielle said..”
“Oh, one of those new ones.” Dustin interrupted him. “You were at the ceremony.” He said. “In the shrine.”
“Yes, its me.” Tarah said. “And we’re looking for a friend of ours. Can you help? Have you seen her? We think she went this way.”
“I saw her tracks.” Balas explained. “Everyone else went down the hill. They’re putting all those bodies on a pyre.”
“Ah.” Jessan sheathed his sword and edged around to see them better. All the kids, he realized, the youngsters who had graduated when this had all started, he could see the little tokens they were wearing all fresh and new.
And some random non Amazon guy. “Who are you?” Jessan asked him, watching his eyes goggle.
“I’m .. um.” He took a careful step back.
“He’s Jax.” Tarah said. “He’s a friend of ours.” She added. “Xena knows him.”
“Yeah, she uh.. kinda got me out of a mess.” Jax added. “Cool lady.”
“So who’s missing?” Jessan brushed aside the chatter.
“Our friend Sali.” Tarah said.
“Sali…” Jessan squinted at them again. “Isn’t she the one who said she killed the oracle?”
“She didn’t do anything like that.” Tarah said. “She’s just making that up. Even Xena said so, I heard her. She said there’s no way she did what she said she did, choking him and all that.” She glanced past him. “Look, can’t we just look for her and talk about this later? I’m afraid she went down there to .. I don’t know. Pray or something.”
“No way she came past us.” Dustin spoke up, his honey golden fur reflecting the torchlight as he folded his brawny arms over his chest. “We got a watch just up there.”
“She wouldn’t have come near you.” Tarah took a step to go around him. “C’mon either help us or get out of our way. I want to find her before something else happens.”
“Before she gets us in even more trouble.” Balas muttered. “Stupid git.”
“She’s our friend.” Tarah turned on her with a glare. “She is not stupid!” She turned back and faced the forest dwellers. “Are you going to help or not?”
Jessan put one hand on one tree casually, blocking the path with his body. He regarded the young Amazon, and concluded that yes, she was in fact a young Amazon. She had that brash edge to her, part bravado, part arrogance he’d noted were common among them.
“Okay.” He finally decided. “Can’t hurt to check between here and the ridge.” He dropped his arm and motioned Dustin forward. “C’mon.”
He turned and started back up the slope, and they hurried to follow him, Jax taking care to stay as far away as the path allowed.
“You have a lot of guts.” He whispered to Tarah. “I don’t even know what that is, that.. uh.. guy.”
Dustin had stepped aside and taken up the rear, unseen by the kids. “We’re forest dwellers.” He said, in a normal tone that made them both jump. “Don’t be mean. We’re just like you except we have fur and claws and four-inch fangs.”
They crossed quickly into the slight plateau the cabin was built on, it’s bulk half striped in shadow and moonlight. Jessan raised a hand to the guards on the porch, keeping on the path that crossed in front of the dwelling and then disappeared into the trees again as it angled towards the ridge.
“We won’t be mean.” Balas said. “Glad you guys are here. Makes it way less creepy.”
Dustin grinned at her, raising one hand and waggling his first and last fingers at her and winking, and making her grin back.
Jessan crossed the upper ridge and turned to the left, now a well-marked path leading to the rappelling ropes where once had been nothing but grass. He kept his eyes on the ground and his nose testing the air, already catching a hint of leather and blood.
Recent. Pungent. A hint of astringency and a sense of a wound reopened. He remembered Xena telling him about what had been done to the girl and growled under his breath, realizing very likely she’d indeed come past the cabin and not been seen.
Idiots had probably been playing bones on the porch. He resisted the urge to look over his shoulder, wondering if he should let Dustin take them on and go back to the cabin, thinking about those five kids asleep inside.
“It’s right up there.” Tarah pointed. “Look! One of them’s let down!” She dodged past Jessan and ran forward, getting to the latticework of wooden poles that formed the rappelling platform and gate at the edge of the precipice. They clustered up behind her and looked over, seeing multiple torches down by the shrines. The wind carried voices on the air.
“Oh boy.” Jessan sighed. “Guess we better go see what’s going on.”
“Should I go back and get the rest of our guys?” Dustin asked. “That was a mess the last time.”
“NO” Jessan uttered. “Leave them where they are, and let’s hope they manage to see anyone ELSE who comes up here.”
They went to the framework and Tarah leaned over, looking down the side of the cliff as she put her hand out and grabbed the one rope that was dangling. “I bet she climbed down.”
“Hurt like she was?” Balas said, in a skeptical tone. “I had to help her to the necessary she could barely walk. If she tried it she probably fell the whole way, and this is a waste of time.”
Jessan took the next rope and lifted it off its rest, examining it before he tossed it over the edge.
“Shouldn’t someone stay up here and guard?” Juna suggested. “Y’know weird stuff has been going on.”
“Sure.” Jessan grabbed the rope and swung out onto it. “You two stay up here.” He pointed at Jax. ” Scream like crazy if you see anything.”
“Hey, I want to go down there too!” Jax protested. “I don’t want to stay here!”
Jessan regarded him. “Dude, you’re not armed.” He said, in a firm tone. “There’s gonna be fighting.” He started to hand over hand move down the rope, wrapping his clawed feet around the lower part of the strand. “Stay there!”
There was a moment of silence, then Tarah moved out onto the rope she had in her hand. “Stay here Jax. He’s right.” She sounded chagrined. “I can’t give you my knife I might need it.”
The Amazons got out onto the ropes and began a rapid climb down, the sound of the hemp strands softly creaking along with the faint protest of the wooden structure as Juna and Jax looked at each other.
“I lost my dagger going down that river.” Jax admitted. “I didn’t even think about it I was so scared.” He sat down one of the two wooden benches near the frame. “I’m not really much for fighting.”
Juna roamed around the small clear area before she came back over and sat down as well. “Yeah, me either.” She confessed, resting her elbows on her knees. “Never really got a taste for it.”
He glanced sideways at her. “Really?” He said. “I thought all Amazons were into that stuff?”
“Some are, some aren’t.” She agreed. “It’s always a scrap growing up. You gotta learn how to keep your place, you know? But some people really like it. Not me.”
“Huh.” Jax said.
“I like making pottery.” Juna offered, unexpectedly. “I’m not really great at it yet, but they said they think I’m going to be. I can cook a little too.”
Jax studied her with a sideways glance. “I thought all girls just knew how to do that.” He said. “I’ve got no idea how to make a pot or use it.”
“Really?” She stared at him. “What the Hades did you do traveling here? Starve?”
“Stopped at taverns.”
“I just wanted a horse.” Jax said. “My da’s stallion and his good mares died in the winter. There was this guy who came through with some really nice horses, and Da tried to buy them but he said he was coming here, to get the best price.” He glanced idly down the path. “I guess he did, I saw them in the paddock down by the river.”
“Why here?” Juna frowned. “Oh, because of the army.”
Jax nodded. “So, Da gave me all his coin, and I came here.” He looked glum. “And I lost it. Five year’s worth. He’s going to kill me.”
“Yeah. Tarah told us.” Juna nodded. “We tried to find it. Me and Balas. Got our boat hung up and lost a wild goat she shot doing it.”
“Yeah, she said.” He looked briefly at her. “Thanks.”
Juna looked thoughtful, and then she stood up. “You know, what we did see when we were up there were those kids.” She mused. “Hunting around in the creek bed for pebbles or whatever.”
“C’mon.” Juna beckoned him. “Dori’s always running around in the woods. Let’s go see if we can ask her if she saw anything.”
“Now?” Jax stood up uncertainly. “But I thought we were guarding this thing? Or whatever?” He gestured to the framework of wood.
“No. I just didn’t feel like climbing back up that stupid rope. We’ll go to the cabin, it’s close and those other furry guys are there. We can ask the kids. You never know – and they’ll for sure have food there. “
Juna started up the path, and after a hesitant moment, he followed her.
They could hear chanting as they reached the bottom of the cliff, and Jessan tucked the rope around the hook hammered into the rock wall and dusted his hands off as the rest got to the bottom and gathered around him.
He studied the area. The ropes let down into a cleared space in the thick foliage, but past that they’d left the area alone, just a narrow footpath wound between the sparsely leaved trees and rocky soil towards the shrines.
“Okay, let’s go around the side there where the wall comes out and see if we can see what’s going on before we let them see us.” He concluded. “Stay down.”
Tarah nodded, and they went along the path, torchlight and the rumble of voices growing as they came closer to the shrines. They could hear the crackle of something burning, and there was a brush of incense on the mild breeze that rustled the leaves around them.
Jessan paused at the edge of the wall and peered carefully around it, squinting his eyes to keep their reflective shine down.
He relied on his dark fur to blend into the rock face, but it really didn’t matter because no one was paying attention to anything but the stone in front of the shrines. The torches were gathered there, and in front of it someone had lit a camp fire.
On top of it, where Xena had stood to sing in the beginning to open them, the guy who had taken over the oracles position was standing, dressed in his black robes.
Around him was the rest of his party, the Ithacans and a handful of Athenian soldiers, and in the rear, relaxing against the fence that guarded the outer wall, a dozen of Xena’s men keeping careful guard.
Jessan was utterly relieved to see them, and recognized Redder there, one of Xena’s most trusted lieutenants standing nearest the rock.
They all had their militia tabards on, and their leather and metal link armor, and were armed and he realized he knew most of them from the trip into Thrace.
Old hands. Xena’s to the core. “I think its okay. “He whispered. “Xena’s guys are here. We can go back up the..”
Tarah peeked around his elbow, then she let out a gasp and before Jessan could grab her she bolted out from the protection of the wall and ran towards the rock, letting out a yell of alarm.
After a moment the rest of the Amazons joined her, and with a long, deep suffering sigh, the two forest dwellers brought up the rear.
Gabrielle felt her attention drifting. She was already thinking ahead to the end of this ceremony, and the walk back up to the village. She could feel the weight of Xena’s arm over her shoulders, and the comforting warmth of her body pressed against her own.
She was anxious for it to be over. She wanted to get back up to their home, and settle inside their cabin with the kids, to end the night together after everything that had gone on.
“Crazy day.” Cyrene commented, from the other side of her.
“Yeah.” Gabrielle agreed.
“Could have ended worse.” The innkeeper opined. “But I’ll be glad to see the last of this festival tomorrow morning and clean the place up.”
Lila appeared at Gabrielle’s elbow. “Always crazy around you, sis.” She said. “I swear it feels like we’ve been here a moon, not just a few days.” She bumped Gabrielle with her elbow. “But it ended up okay. Mom even got those shawls she was looking for.”
“And a long list of stories to tell everyone in Potadeia.” Her sister remarked. “The hearth circle’s gonna be entertained for days.”
“True that.” Lila chuckled.
The militia finished tossing the last of the soldier’s bodies onto the pyre and stood back, dusting their hands off, watching the flames consume them.
Everyone was silent for a moment, the sparks popping and crackling, the logs splitting a bit and shifting, showing deep stripes of red before wisping to white, faint bits of light and ash drifting up towards the clear, starlit sky.
Then Bennu turned slightly towards Xena, his eyes going to the Amazon dead, then to her in question.
“We’ve got it, Benny.” Ephiny patted his elbow and moved forward. Pony, Solari and Nala quickly followed her as they crossed in front of the crowd towards where the three bodies were lain.
A moment later, Xena and Gabrielle joined them, and as they reached the area, Xena quietly spoke. “Hold on.”
Surprised, and a little curious, the other Amazons turned to face her, inquiring expressions on their faces. Gabrielle remained at her side, looking thoughtful.
Xena, however, also turned and faced the crowd. “People.” She raised her voice. “Who here saw these Amazons die?”
After a brief, startled moment, Cait cleared her throat. “Well, we did actually.” She nodded her head towards Paladia.
Xena nodded. “Tell it.”
Cait glanced around, patently surprised at this unexpected role. She glanced at Paladia, who shook her head slightly. “Oh.” She licked her lips. “Well. It was just before that whole bit at the bridge, you see.” She said. “And there were a half dozen of that lot..” She indicated the pyre. “Attacking them.”
Xena held up her hand. “Why?” She asked, as Cait blinked in a puzzled fashion at her. “Had a whole damned army to keep them occupied with.” She said, her voice echoing out a little bit over the crowd. “Why them?” She asked. “Far as those bastards knew they were just merchants.”
The militia in the crowd listened attentively to her, glancing around, looking at the rest of the crowd along with the townsfolk, who had been on the other side of the river. Idly curious, the question of interest, but not something any of them had clearly wondered about.
Bennu folded his arms over his chest, casually moving slightly closer to where Simon was standing, his eyes just as casually meeting Torstens.
After an awkward moment of silence, a very young Athenian soldier shuffled forward, out of the crowd, looking abashed and embarrassed, and more than a little frightened as he lifted one hand a little in Xena’s direction. He was tow headed and a little on the scrawny side, his armor a bit askew.
“Where is this going?” Gabrielle whispered. “Does why really matter, Xe?”