A Change of Seasons
The young soldier stopped a few lengths away from Xena, and fiddled with his worn sword belt, hunching his shoulders as she inclined her head and regarded him.
A few of the other Athenians edged closer
“I’ll tell yer.” The soldier said. “Don’t matter now anyhow.” He said. “It’s done, y’know?”
Cait walked over and examined him, his head almost even with hers, and he took a step backwards in reflex, holding up one hand as though to ward her off. “You ran away.” She said, in a calm, thoughtful voice.
“After you came there? Sure I did.” The soldier said. “You whopped Bestar’s head off and it hit me. Took me half a day to get all the blood off me. Straight I ran.”
Xena cleared her throat. “Get to the story.” She said. “Why’d you attack them?”
The soldier looked back at her. Xena was backlit by the pyre, her face in the shadowy reflection of the torches around the market square. “They got us mad.” He said. “They was making fun of us, said we were all gonna get kilt.” He added. “Wasn’t going to have some women saying that, were we?”
“Well.” Cait said. “Quite a lot of you did get killed, you know.”
“Had no right to make fun of us.” The soldier shook his head, stubbornly. “Them old ones, laughing.”
Gabrielle reached up and pinched the bridge of her nose. “Can it be that simple?” She uttered, under her breath.
“So yeah, we went at em.” The young soldier said. “And sides, Bestar wanted the necklaces they had. Didn’t have coin to pay for em so he figured two birds, y’know?” He glanced furtively at Xena. “Figured it would be easy. Just some old crones.” His eyes flicked to Cait. “Then more of them started showing up.”
Gabrielle stirred into motion, walking up past where Paladia was waiting, arms folded, and past where Cait was standing, one hand on her belt knife. She came face to face with the soldier and stood still, hooking her thumbs into her belt.
He eyed her warily.
“What would you do now, if you had to make the same choice?” Gabrielle asked, in a gentle, thoughtful tone. “Would you still attack them?”
The soldier blinked. “You mean, if they still went to make us mad?” He asked.
“Uh huh. But if you knew then, what you know now, about who and what the Amazons are?” Gabrielle said. “If you knew how your friend would die, and saw Xena kill your comrades. Would you still treat them like some kind of prey you had a right to go after?”
“Hades balls no.” The boy said. “Woulda deserted long for the pass, and go off with that man what was raising horses.” He glanced past her to where Xena was standing, now with her arms crossed over her chest in somewhat weary patience. “I aint never seen nothing like that and no one else neither.”
Gabrielle partially turned, and drew in breath a little deeper, projecting her voice. “All of these people, my Amazons, and your comrades died without purpose.” Her voice took on a slight edge. “Died in pain, and fear, not because there was any reason to it.”
“No one told us!” One of the older soldiers protested, then fell silent as Gabrielle turned to stare at him.
“That’s not true.” She said, after a pause. “I’ve done nothing for the last decade of my life but tell everyone within my hearing all about who we are, when I haven’t been in actual battles shedding actual blood proving it across half the known world.” She looked at them slowly, turning her head. “So don’t tell me you didn’t know.”
The Amazons were now watching her alertly, Pony taking a few steps forward, sensing challenge in the wind though not quite sure of it’s source yet.
“Question is, why you decided not to believe it.” Gabrielle concluded. “What made you all think it wasn’t true.” She swung back around to the young soldier. “Who told you it was all a lie? Someone did.” She took a step closer to him.
“W.. we just said it.” The soldier admitted. “Just talk with everyone.. story telling stuff” He gestured. “The sellers and all that.”
“Oh no.” Gabrielle said. “Not everyone. Not the merchants from town, or anyone who lives near here because they know.” She tilted her head a little. “And as for telling stories – it certainly wasn’t me.”
“What’s she going after?” Cyrene had sidled over to where her daughter was standing.
“Bad apple.” Xena replied. “She’s right. Someone spread the poison.”
“Oh please tell me someone here isn’t that stupid.” Her mother sighed. “Any idea who?”
Jessan got to the edge of the crowd as Tarah knelt in front of the rock, touching a huddled figure at the base of it that was hidden before.
“What are you doing to her?” The young Amazon braced up on her knees defiantly. “You bastard troublemakers! You caused all the trouble around here!”
“Leave me alone!” Sali squirmed away from her. “You’ll ruin everything! Go away!”
“What the what?” Dustin muttered at his side.
The oracle stared at Tarah with affront. “This girl comes to give sacrifice willingly!” He said. “Who are you to interfere? You men, keep her back! You heard the girl’s wishes!”
Redder took a breath to answer, then noticed Jessan standing there. “From the village, eh?”
“What are you doing?” Tarah hissed at her friend. “What do you want them to do to you? Are you crazy? Didn’t you get hurt enough by that bastard?”
“They’re Amazons.” Jessan edged forward, and the men in front of him dissolved out of his way, his head towering over theirs. “What’s going on here?” He asked, borrowing a page from Xena’s leadership book and adding a stern note to his voice.
He ended up in a clear space in front of the rock and now could see the whole scene. There were offerings lined up along the path into Ares’ shrine, and torches stood bright and fluttering on either side of the entrance. The pathway to Aphrodite’s shrine was dark and unregarded.
He came to stand over the two Amazons, and after a moment, Dustin joined him. “What is going on here?” Jessan asked again, in a louder voice, as the Ithacans came up to stand next to the rest of the oracles men.
“Please, leave me alone!” Sali moaned. “Just let them do it. The only one who can help me now is Ares.” She twisted her hands in Tarah’s leathers. “Please.. I’m going to pray to him to just put things back.”
“Put what back?” Tarah asked.
“The girl came and asked us to help her make a sacrifice to our lord Ares.” The oracle said. “I have listened to his voice, and he is willing to hear her plea.” He held his hands out to the girl. “She wants his intercession. I want to help her. This trip has been a disaster for us, and I will pray to him as well.”
Jessan looked from the oracle to the girl, listening to the murmurs of the Ithacans and the soldiers around him.
“We all want to help.” One of the Ithacans said. “The girl wants to seek forgiveness for what she did to the man who died. Why are you interfering?”
Jessan knelt down, shooing Tarah aside with a wave of his claws, and leaning his elbow on his knee as he studied the young Amazon. “Hey.”
Sali glanced briefly up at him. “Can’t you just leave me alone? I was so close…”
“I can’t.” Jessan said, in a mournful tone. “You’re hurt.”
Sali curled into a ball. “I know. If he can’t forgive me, I just want to die.” She said. “Please let them help me. I don’t know what else to do.” She reached out and touched his arm. “Will you help us pray too? They said you were a follower of Ares.”
Jessan was aware of the presence of Xena’s militia now at his back, but he sensed no agitation in the other men, no imminent threat, and he took a moment to think about what he should do. What Xena and Gabrielle would expect him to do.
“C’mere.” He slid forward and picked her up, before she could scramble away from him and then he stood up. “I’m gonna go into the shrine. You all wait here.” He ordered. “Stay still, kiddo. Lets go have a chat with Ares before anyone does anything to anyone.”
“I should go with you.” The oracle said importantly. “He speaks through me.”
“No.” Jessan looked directly at him, lips tensing slightly to reveal his fangs. “Everyone stay here.” He glanced at Redder, who nodded. Then he headed down the torchlit path to the shrine, taking the short walk to try and figure out what in fact, he was going to do.
“Know what I think?” Paladia had wandered over to the side of the pyre, and ended up on the other side of Xena. “Her nibs is right on about the cranking.”
Xena glanced at her. “You hear any of it?”
For a long moment, the tall ex renegade, come to the Amazons by the most circuitous of routes was silent. “So like I’ve been down here most of the time selling crap.”
“He was all around the place taking to everyone, but when you’d try to listen, he’d slide off.” Paladia said, sussinctly. “But Renas told me he kept trying to get an angle on them.”
“And he tried to get an angle on me going up the hill.”
Xena turned and focused on her. “What kind of angle?”
“Like a, hey, I can do stuff for you and we can make money if you come with me angle.” Paladia said. “With the drawing and crap.”
They were almost the same height, and they regarded each other in silence for a short while, eye to eye. “You think he pitched Renas the same?”
“Maybe.” Paladia said. “She coulda gone for it. She was jackass a lot.” She added. “But not Aalene.” She looked past Xena. “Bet if you ask that snot nose who told them they were talking crap it would be him.”
“As in, ‘hey, you men shouldn’t stand for those crones dissing you.’ Kinda thing?”
Paladia lifted one hand and moved her fingers against her thumb, in a mouth chattering motion. “I think he’s a skank.” She glanced over to where Gabrielle was slowly regarding to the crowd in silence. “I think you should go over and do that thing to him and make him cough it up. Save her some time.”
A faint smile appeared on Xena’s face. “Ya think, huh?”
“Yeah. Cause otherwise the nutcase is gonna stand here half frozen all damned night long and crap I’m tired.” Paladia admitted. “C’mon.”
Xena lifted one hand and touched her forehead in an ironic salute, then she turned on her heel and started across the open space, to where she could see Simon standing in front of Bennu. Her eyes met her captain’s in silent signal and he nodded, unfolding his arms and letting his hands drop to his sides as she angled towards them.
He spotted her. In a blur of motion, he turned and as Bennu reached out to grab him he twisted out of his overcloak and ducked under Bennu’s arm, squirming free and bolting for the road that lined the river away from Amphipolis.
Jessan felt a sense of relief once he passed through the opening into the shrine, it’s interior lit with the red tinted wall sconces with their oil pots and stained glass panes.
He carried Sali to the altar and set her down on top of it, smelling the fear coming off her and feeling the trembling in her body as he let his hands rest on the stone. “Okay, just take it easy.” He said. “Before anything crazy happens, lets talk.”
Sali glanced up at the wall, where the painting of Ares gazed down at her. “There’s nothing else to talk about.” She said. “I wonder if that’s what he looks like.”
“That’s what he looks like.” Jessan said.
Sali looked back at the picture. “They wouldn’t let us sacrifice in here.” She said, softly. “Someone told me.. it was because we were blood innocent.” She looked at Jessan. “But if I killed the oracle, Im not, right?”
“But you didn’t.” Jessan said, calmly.
“I did.” Sali insisted. “Everyone keeps saying I didn’t, but I did. I know what I did. I went down there, into the barracks. I was so mad.. I was so ashamed.” She put her head down on the altar. “He did… he hurt me so much.”
“Yeah.” Jessan murmured. “My kid told me.” He said. “Her name is.. well, her nickname is Butterbean. But her birth name is Xena.”
Sali lifted her head and stared at him. “She’s amazing.” She said. “I was thinking about her when I went into the barracks, because she was so brave, and so fierce, and I knew I had to be like that to get back at him for what he did.”
“But you didn’t.”
“Why do you keep saying that? I did.” Sali frowned, now pushing herself up onto her elbows. “I went into the room, and it was dark. His guys were all sleeping. I went over and took the pillow you know? I put it over his face, and held it down for a quarter candlemark.”
Jessan regarded her. “And?”
“And he wasn’t breathing.” Sali stared past him. “I was glad. Until I got back to the village and realized how bad I..” She hesitated. “That I wasn’t going to be able to fix what he did.”
Jessan folded his arms on the altar and leaned on them. “So, are you sure he was breathing before you started?”
Her head swung around to face him. “What?”
“Listen.” Jessan lowered his voice. “His throat was crushed. Someone with real big mitts put them around his neck and broke his windpipe.”
“I di..” Sali looked down at her hands. “That’s what Xena meant.” She whispered. “She asked me about how that felt and I had no idea what she was talking about.” She looked at him. “You mean he was killed twice?” She seemed bewildered. “I thought.. the pillow was on the floor and I just picked it up.. I didn’t see his face before I did it.”
Oh. Poor dumb little human. Jessan sighed inwardly. “If you could have one wish, what would it be?” He asked her. “I mean, if you were going to ask Ares, what would you ask?”
“That he forgive me.” Sali ventured softly.
Jessan shook his head. “He won’t. He’s not into that.” He told her, with stark honesty. “He doesn’t get anything out of it.” He added. “So let me think about it for a minute.”
He pondered, and then, he stepped back and drew his sword, the rasp of the metal against leather loud inside the shrine and the girl gasped, shrinking back from him. “Thought you said you didn’t mind dying?”
She huddled on the altar, then closed her eyes and turned her head.
Jessan turned his sword downward to rest it’s tip on the ground, and then he knelt, putting the hilt against his forehead and focused his mind, thinking back to that time, in the underworld, with all of Hades forces against them.
Thinking of Ares, trapped in his uncles realm.
He reached out in gentle entreaty. Father Ares. He spoke in his mind. We fought together once, and I gave you some small assistance. May I ask you now, for a little favor in return?
He felt an unseen, non physical blast that lifted the fur on his body and put sparkles at the backs of his closed eyes and in that next breath he sensed the presence and that blast of familiar terror.
“Finally.” The exasperation in the God of War’s voice nearly audibly dripped onto the stone floor as it filled the shrine. “All right fuzzy. What’d ya have in mind?”
“We’ll get him, gen’rl!”
Xena watched the fleeing man dodge through the end of the market square, moving faster than she’d have given him credit for. “Get a move on!” She let out a yell. “Watch the paddock! He might try to grab one of the horses.”
Gabrielle came over to stand next to her, folding her arms and exhaling.
A dozen militia were in flight after him, the youngest and fastest of them already pounding along the beaten track and working to keep him in sight.
Cyrene wandered over. “That who you figured?”
“He apparently thinks so.” Gabrielle remarked. “But yeah, something wasn’t right there. I just..” She sighed. “I should have chased it down sooner. Cait saw it.” She shifted the cloak around her shoulders a little to block the chilly wind coming down the river. “She said he reminded her of Apollo.”
Cait heard her name and arrived promptly, watching her queen with an alert expression. “Hello.” She said. “Did you call me?”
“I was telling Xena about what you said.” Gabrielle said. “About Simon reminding you of Apollo.”
Cait nodded. “Yes, we didn’t get a chance to chat about that really. Something about how he spoke, you see. Almost like what he was saying didn’t quite match what you heard.” She added. “Just wasn’t right.”
“Just wasn’t right.” Gabrielle murmured in echo. She glanced at the Athenian soldier, who was standing there somewhat awkwardly. “Was he telling stories in the market?” She asked him. “That guy, who just took off running?”
The youngster shook his head, but another soldier stepped forward. “Was.” The man said, gruffly. “Reglar ones, you know? What like you’d hear at the tavern on the road.” He paused. “But funny that, you felt mad when he’d done with it.”
“Mad?” Xena asked, one brow lifting.
The man nodded. “Not sure why, really.” He admitted. “Just… “ He shook his head. “No sense to it.”
The young soldier cleared his throat. “We’re goin back to our fire, sokay?” He eyed Xena warily. “Don’t wanna get mixed in anything else.”
“Sure.” Xena waved him off. “Thanks, you helped us out with all this stuff. I appreciate it.”
The Athenians walked off, leaving Xena and Gabrielle regarding each other in pensive silence. After a moment, Ephiny and Pony came over, glancing past them at the retreating soldiers.
“What’s up?” Pony asked. “Want to get this done?” She indicated the Amazon bodies, still under the tarp shelter near the pyre. “You done with the questioning?” She added. “That guy who you were looking for? That outsider storyteller? Wasn’t much of one.”
“Not compared with our queen.” Ephiny smiled. “Benny told him that the other night and pissed him off.” She added casually. “But he told him after that if he walked around here talking crap he’d beat him silly.”
“He told Simon that?” Gabrielle asked.
Ephiny nodded. “So when those guys catch him, I’m not all that sure he’ll end up being able to answer your questions.” She eyed Xena. “Know what I mean?”
“Know what you mean.” Xena sighed, turning her head to listen for the chase, hearing the yells from the road and then, the rapid thunder of horse hooves. “Damn it.”
“Glad our horses are up in the stable.” Gabrielle said. “Okay, lets get this done while we’re waiting.” She turned to the group of Amazons, and indicated the pyre with a motion of her head. Then she took the lead and they all walked over to where the bodies were resting, wrapped in linen, bracketed by their weapons and rank markers.
The rest of the tribe followed them, and behind them some of the townsfolk, paying tribute to their neighbors they had now become used to.
Gabrielle came to a stop and studied the three forms, allowing herself to feel the somber sadness at the loss, aware of the silence of the tribe at her back, and the solid support of Ephiny and Pony to either side of her.
Two elders, their experience now lost, and Aalene, a brave young warrior who had left behind a young child now bewildered and bereft of her mother. “What a damn waste.” She exhaled, kneeling beside Aalene’s pallet, letting her hand rest on her linen bound chest. “We’ll take care of her, Aa.” She said, gently. “I promise you.”
Ephiny and Pony, along with Nala and Cait went to the first of the pallets, where Renas lay. They picked it up, and started toward the fire, as the tribe started a soft, gentle stamping of their boots on the packed earth.
Gabrielle stood and followed them, feeling the vibration through the soles of her own feet. After a moment a shadow loomed at her side and Xena’s hand came to rest on the small of her back, moving silently as they approached the pyre, it’s warmth touching them.
Ephiny counted softly and on the fourth mark, they moved together and tossed the pallet onto the flames, the dried wood flaring up as the fire consumed the body.
They watched, then retreated as four other Amazons moved past with Das’ pallet, and repeated the motion, the rest of the tribe silently beating a heartbeat on the ground around them.
Xena put her hands on Gabrielle’s shoulders as Ephiny went back with her companions for Aalene. She moved closer, and felt Gabrielle lean back against her, the fire outlining them both in golden light and shadows as they waited for the Amazons to return.
“So senseless, Xe.” Gabrielle murmured quietly. “Makes me so mad any of this had to happen.”
“I know.” Xena whispered back. “If I could turn back time and stop it, I would.”
Gabrielle turned her head and looked up at her, and their eyes met.
“C’mon, c’mon, I aint got all day.” Ares took a seat on the long chest against the far wall of his shrine, putting his hands on either side of him and leaning forward on them.
Jessan remained where he was, hands clasped around the hilt of his sword. “Your oracle really hurt this little girl.” He said, watching that sharp, angular face as Ares looked over at Sali. “Can you fix that?”
Sali was frozen still, and the sounds from outside had faded to nothing, and he realized this was a moment just between him and his god.
“You really want to waste a favor on that?” Ares asked, skeptically. “C’mon.” He kicked his booted legs out idly. “Ask me for something good, woudlja? Maybe a new sticker? I could give you a nice one.”
A sword from Ares hand? Jessan caught his breath. Wow.
How awesome would that be? And something he could pass down to Warin. He drew in a breath, then paused.
But he had a sword. He looked at the hilt, hammered and shaped by his father. He had a sword, and as he tasted the air in the shrine he could sense the blood seeping from the girl, and in his head, he heard the echo of Butterbean’s voice describing what the oracle had done.
“No, father.” Jessan said. “That would be the honor of my life, but I cannot ask for it. This girl had evil done to her, by your Voice. I want to reclaim your honor for it. “
Ares studied him, the mocking expression gone for the moment. “He was a loser.” The god said, after a brief pause.
Jessan shifted his hands a little. “But you let him speak for you.”
Ares shrugged. “Scam.” He said. “Most of them are.” He glanced around. “I told him to come here to get an idea of what a real temple’s like. More good jazz here then all the dumps in Athens together.”
“Xena’s here.” Jessan ventured. “Your Chosen.”
Ares smiled briefly. “She brings it.” He agreed, glancing around. “Ask me for something good, c’mon.”
“But.. then why didn’t they all see that?” Jessan asked. “All the ones who showed up here for you… they acted like they’d never heard of her.”
Ares frowned and focused on him, standing up and walking over to where he was kneeling. “What?”
“It was weird.” Jessan studied his hands. “All of them, and the soldiers from Athens who showed up.. they all dissed her. Said she was a woman, so she didn’t count.” He glanced up warily as Ares moved, putting his hands on his hips as both eyebrows hiked up. “I didn’t get it.”
Slowly the God of War turned around, and tilted his head to one side, his pale eyes going unfocused. “My oracle?” He asked, in a tone of disbelief. “No way.”
“Him too.” Jessan watched him, sensing a flare of energy coming off him, making his skin tingle. “It was really strange.”
Ares went silent for a long moment, head bent, hands on hips, eyes half closed, a faint blue ripple of light washing his skin. Then he straightened up and looked at Jessan. “So you want this kid fixed?” He indicated the Amazon lying on his altar. “Really?”
Confused, Jessan glanced at the girl. “Yes. I’d like that, and I think Xena and Gabrielle would too.” He ventured. “After those other Amazons were killed, I mean. It would be.. and my daughter would be glad.” He faltered, as Ares pinned him with those sharp eyes again. “She tried to help. She clawed the oracle and I was worried.. I mean, he was your Voice.”
Ares walked over to the altar and put his hand on the Amazon. Then he turned and looked at Jessan, his expression tensing into one of anger. He lifted both hands and snapped his fingers, and the altar was empty. “All right.” He addressed Jessan, who scrambled to his feet. “Now you owe me a favor.”
Jessan just got his sword into its sheath when the God of War snapped his fingers again, and he was alone in the shrine.
Xena felt a moment of disorientation, a sense of pressure in her inner ear, and then she and Gabrielle were no longer near the pyre, they were standing on the porch of Cyrene’s inn, looking down at the river. “Hey!” She jumped, her entire body twitching as it tried to identify what had just occurred.
“What the Hades just happened?” Gabrielle blurted, whirling around to face her. “Xena, what the.. how did we…”
Xena blinked, looking around in bewilderment as a few militia walked by on the path, raising their hands in greeting. She hesitantly lifted her hand in response, then she turned all the way around, looking into the window of the inn. “What the….”
The inn was full of visitors, most at the end of their meals and there were mugs being raised and laughter. At the back of the room she spotted Cyrene and Toris, and Lila sitting at their family table, with Hecuba standing pouring a pitcher into their cups.
She turned back around. “Something just happened that’s for damn sure.”
Gabrielle stared down at the market, which was lit and busy, the sound of music floating up to where they were standing. She could hear drums, and just see the edge of the stage where players were warming up and overhead there was a full moon reflecting off the water of the river flowing past. “Full moon, Xe.”
Xena walked to her side and stared up at the sky. “I see it.”
“We had a full moon four days ago.”
They looked at each other.
“Lets go home.” Gabrielle went down the steps of the inn and after a second Xena joined her. “I have no idea what’s going on but I want to check on our family.”
“Right with ya.” Xena felt as rattled as she had been in quite some time. She returned the sedate greetings of the guards who were standing on either side of the casually opened back gates, and they quickly made their way up the steep path together.
“What do you think’s going on?” Gabrielle asked. “We being messed with again?”
“Uh…” Xena glanced to her right as they passed the gates to the Amazon village, but they were closed for the night, the guard post shuttered. “No idea hon. Not even a clue.”
Suddenly, Gabrielle stopped and turned, and held her hands up as Xena only barely kept from bowling her over. “Wait.”
“What?” Xena hopped backwards and grabbed hold of a tree branch to keep her balance. “Hey!”
“What was the last thing you said to me down there? When we were standing by the pyre?”
Xena stared at her. “What?”
Gabrielle put her hands on Xena’s shoulders, the slope of the path bringing their heads almost even. “What did you say to me?” She insisted. “C’mon, Xena!”
Xena blinked. “I said…”She paused. “I said if I could turn back the time and make all that not happen, I would.” She said, and then went silent as they stared intently into each other’s eyes.
“Did you?” Gabrielle finally whispered.
“No.” Xena instantly answered. “I didn’t do anything.” She added firmly. “Not a damn thing, Gabrielle. I was just standing there behind you waiting for it to be over.”
“Something happened.” Gabrielle uttered. “Xena, that market looked like it did before all this crap started up. You saw it.”
“I did not do anything.” Xena enunciated each word fiercely.
Gabrielle pressed her forehead against Xena’s, the two of them standing there in the moonlight. “Do you think.” She said, deliberately. “Based on our life together. That you saying that and this happening could be coincidence, Xena?”
“Lets go home.” Xena gently turned her around and pushed her forward. “I need a drink before I answer that.”
They jogged the rest of the way up to the cabin, crossing the footbridge and getting up past the last slope to where the moon was bathing their home in sedate silver light, the oil lamp on the edge of the porch flickering in the breeze.
Up the steps and through the door, and they both halted and looked around. “There.” Gabrielle went to her workbench, where a cloth bag was sitting. “My first day’s shopping.”
Xena crossed the floor and opened the door to the children’s room, poking her head inside to see Dori and Cari in their beds, with the puppies snoring on the floor next to them. She withdrew and closed the door, going to the table and sitting down.
Gabrielle went to the wineskin hanging on the mantel and snagged two cups, filling them up and setting one next to Xena’s hand as she sat down with the other. “So.”
Xena drained her cup in a single draft and put it down.
Gabrielle reached over and put her hand on Xena’s. “You know what? I don’t care what happened, Xe. It doesn’t matter.” She said. “Will you stay here with the kids, while I run down to the village? There’s one way to know if we’re really crazy or not.”
“Sure.” Xena said, after a brief pause. “I’ll go see if Jess is awake. See what he remembers. Or the kids.”
“Be right back.” Gabrielle took a long swallow of the rich, fruity wine and set her cup down, and then she twitched her cloak around her shoulders and left.
Xena leaned back, reaching over to snag the wineskin and refill her cup. She took a sip, then turned her head as she heard the door to Dori’s room open. “Dori?”
“Boo.” Dori walked out, rubbing her eyes. “Was sleeping.”
“I know, little one. You can go back to bed. Nothing’s going on.”
“She just went down to see our friends in the village.”
Cari came out with the puppies behind her, all of them yawning. “They sent some cookies.” Cari said, softly. “Want?” She went over to the small table near the window and picked up a basket with both hands, bringing it over to where Xena was sitting.
“Sure.” Xena took one of the honey cakes inside. “What kind of fun did you kids have today? What were you up to?” She took a bite and chewed it.
Dori climbed up onto one of the seats next to her. “We had fuuuuuun Boo. We went around with our friends in the woods and gots treasure.” She told her. “Right Car?”
“Gots.” Cari agreed. “Pretty rocks.” She clarified. “And a egg.”
“Show me.” Xena felt herself relax. “Let me see your treasure.” She watched Dori go rambling off back into her room, and she picked Cari up and set her in her lap. “Glad you kids had fun.”
“The fuzzy peoples are so nice.” Cari told her. “We made a rope and did this.” She lifted her hands and rocked back and forth. “It was good.”
Dori came back with a bag, leather and somewhat ragged, an old one of Gabrielle’s she’d absconded with. She climbed back up and dumped the contents onto the table. “Look!” She pushed a pile over towards Xena. “Pretty!”
Xena studied the contents, exhaling as she identified the normal detritus the kids picked up. Rocks, yes. One of Argo’s old bits. She picked up one item and examined it. A squirrel skull.
“Beany found that one.” Dori said. “Said it was a aminal.. is it Boo?”
Hm. “It’s a part of an animal, but it’s a long time since it was alive, Dori.” Xena murmured, turning over the dirt and moss stained object in her fingers. “Didn’t Bean want to keep it?”
“I gave Beany a fishes.” Dori explained. “She ated it and give me this one back.”
“Oh, I see.” Xena smiled. “You were back by the creek, huh? By the water?”
“Ya, Boo it’s fuuuuun.” Dori agreed. “Lots of pretty rocks and stuff.”
No nuggets. No strange soldier debris. “You see anyone out in the forest when you were finding these?” She glanced from Dori to Cari. “Feather people running around, or anyone?”
Dori shook her head in a definitive motion. “Nobody, Boo. It was good and psssh.” She made a shushing sound. “Doggos went to fishes.”
“I got a flower.” Cari offered, squirming down off Xena’s lap and running into the bedroom. “I show you.”
Like nothing of all the last few days had happened. Xena exhaled, putting down the skull and picking up one of the round, scoured pebbles from the creek. Like spring had just kept on the way it had been. “Glad you kids had fun.”
Something had happened all right. Xena put the pebble down on the table and took a sip from her cup. But she hadn’t done it. Even though she’d wanted to, in that moment, with all her heart.
Gabrielle lifted her hand and pounded on the gates, stepping back and listening as she heard the sound of approaching footsteps echo softly from inside.
A small hatch in the gates opened, and then the gates jerked into motion, one side swinging outward and revealing Solari’s familiar figure ducking into the opening. “Your maj!” Her voice sounded surprised. “Didn’t expect to see ya again tonight.”
“Hey.” Gabrielle entered and waited for Solari to swing the gate shut again.
“Thought you were staying up the way.” Solari slid the heavy beam into place. “Figured we’d have a quiet night after yesterday.” She dusted her hands off and joined Gabrielle. “Dosi, you good here?”
“Good.” Dosi was in the guard shelter with it’s brazier for warmth. “That’s the only knock we’ve gotten since sundown.”
“Yeah, I..” Gabrielle found herself a little breathless, as the reality of the situation became more and more solid. “I forgot something in my quarters.” She finally added. “Just need to pick it up and I wanted to see how everything was here.”
“Nice.” Solari turned and walked at her side as they headed towards the path. “Eph and Pony came up about a candlemark ago, said the market was doing great.”
“Yeah.” Gabrielle murmured. “I saw it. Sounds like they’re having a real party down there.”
“Good for us.” Solari nodded in satisfaction as they angled towards the isolated plateau that held the queen’s quarters and her regents. “I talked to Renas before. She and Das are going to sell out by tomorrow they think. She’s stoked.”
Gabrielle felt the twitch along her body, a shock reaction. “Really?” She managed to get out. “That’s fast.” She walked up to the door of her quarters and pushed it open, glancing around at the interior to identify something to grab as Solari came in behind her. “And they made some extra bracelets and necklaces too, didn’t they?”
“Yup, that’s what she said.” Solari responded. “They’re jazzed. They got their eye on a couple things on sale down there with all that coin. They’re glad cause they want to grab up some of that stuff before it’s sold out.”
“Wow.” Gabrielle temporized. “That’s great, and I think Paladia’s doing good with those pictures.”
Solari nodded at once. “Had a half dozen people lined up when I was down there.” She smiled. “Maybe she’ll buy Cait a new knife or something.” She regarded Gabrielle. “You.. looking for something? Can I help?”
“Um.. no I was…” Ah, scrolls. Gabrielle went over to her desk and picked up two tied and rolled scrolls. “Here we go.” She diverted to Dori’s room and picked up a toy on the bed. “And this.” She emerged, holding it up. “Oogy the tenth.”
“Sol, is..“ Gabrielle paused. “Is Aalene up here or still down by the river?” She paused, before she looked up at Solari’s face, her eyes tilted skyward as she considered. “I want to ask her something.”
“She’s..” Solari bit her lip. “No, she’s up here.” She concluded. “She brought some toys up for her kiddo. You want me to go get her? She’s probably just done with dinner.”
“Would you?” Gabrielle went over and sat down behind her desk before her legs gave out under her. “Been a long day.”
“Sure!” Solari said. “Be right back.” She ducked out the door and left it slightly open, allowing the sounds of the village to drift in.
Gabrielle rested her hands on the desk, watching them tremble a little, before she drew in a long breath and then let it out slowly. “This is true.” She said quietly, under her breath. “Xena, did you do this?” She was half scared, and half.. joyous? Elated? “Did you? One blink after you said that, it happened. A blink!”
Stunned, but not surprised, because if there was anyone in the world that she knew who would do something impossible like this, it was Xena. Could or not? Who knew?
Xena herself didn’t think so. But Gabrielle remembered times when they’d been out on the road and she’d told stories of things Xena had done, that she, Gabrielle, knew she’d done because she’d seen it with her own eyes, and Xena had said she didn’t think she had.
That Gabrielle was exaggerating. Or making it up to make her look good.
Footsteps approached outside and she shook herself and sat up, letting her hands drop to her knees as the door swung open and Solari entered, with Aalene just behind her. “Hey.”
Aalene came over and sat down across from Gabrielle. “Sol said you wanted to ask me something?” She said, running her hands threw her hair. “Hope it’s not to run back down the hill. I’m beat!”
For a long moment, Gabrielle’s mind went completely blank. “No, no. Nothing like that.” She temporized. “I was just wondering… ah…” She paused, trying to think of something that would be important enough to have asked this woman to stop what she was doing and attend her.
Aalene’s eyebrows lifted politely.
“You were down in the market all day, right?”
Aalene nodded. “I was. I helped out in the stalls, and then I was giving some of Benny’s guys a hand with the horses.”
“Did you see a guy come in, a traveler, from the north?” Gabrielle asked. “Said he was a storyteller?”
Aalene frowned thoughtfully. “From the north?”
“Yeah, with a traveling robe on, and a pack?”
“No.” The Amazon shook her head, after a long pause to think. “There were a bunch of guys who came in from Thrace, with wagons of leather hides, and a couple of silversmiths looking for some work but no storytellers.” She said. “I mean, why would they come here? Everyone knows you live here.”
“True that.” Solari agreed. “Who is this guy? You want us to go look around down there and see if he showed up?” She asked. “Or I can tip Cait off. She’s down there keeping an eye on the market.”
“No, I was just wondering. I thought someone said there was a storyteller that came in and I wanted to talk to him.” Gabrielle said. “You know. Bard to bard stuff.” She picked up the toy on her desk and turned it over in her hands. “You’re right, I mean, not many show up here but I’m not sure if it’s my reputation.. “ She rolled her eyes drolly. “Or the fact we’re kind of out of the way.”
“We can check tomorrow.” Aalene said. “I wanted to go down early to get some shopping in. Some of those hides were nice and I need some new boots.” She stood up. “That all, your maj?”
Gabrielle looked up at her. “Yeah, sorry to bother you.” She said. “It was just that I knew you were down there.”
Aalene smiled. “No problem. Never bothers me to get summoned to the presence.” She winked at Solari. “Stop by and have a cup later, Sol. I grabbed a skin of that new white from the market.”
“Walk you back now.” Solari lifted her hand. “Night, your maj. Tell Big X we say hi.”
“I will.” Gabrielle watched them leave. Then she stood up and put the rolled scrolls away in her wooden cabinet and picked up the toy, tucking it under her arm before she turned down the oil lamp and left, closing the door behind her.
Dosi saw her approaching and was ready with the gate open. “G’night.” The warrior said, as she passed through. Great day, huh?”
Gabrielle smiled briefly. “Yeah it was.” She said. “Ended up that way, anyhow.” She crossed the path and headed up the trail to their home, the moonlight trickling through the new leaves to pattern the ground she was walking over.
It was quiet, a gentle rustling of branches overhead that accompanied her as she climbed and the soft, far of rush of water beneath her as she crossed the footbridge over the chasm that separated the rise they lived on from the rest of the range.
On the far side, Ares the wolf was waiting for her, seated on the ground, his long tail thumping as she arrived. “Hey boy.”
He got up and followed her as she mounted the slate steps up to the cabin’s plateau, each one neatly cut into the earth and its surface roughed to keep it from being slippery and making an easier way up than the sloped steepness it had been.
Gabrielle reached the top and walked through the moss covered ground and fringe of trees that surrounded their home, the moonlight splashing over the cabin as it came into her view, the windows thrown open and a warm golden light showing within.
She found Xena sitting on the porch, watching an owl the tree closest to the cabin. She had a cloak around her shoulders, and she turned her head towards Gabrielle as she climbed up the sturdy wooden steps and took a seat next to her. “It happened, Xe.”
“Yeah, I know.” Xena’s voice sounded peaceful, if a bit pensive. “I’m glad.”
“Yeah, me too.” Gabrielle reached over and took Xena’s hand in hers, clasping their fingers together. “I talked to Aalene.”
“Solari talked to Renas and Das. The market’s going really well. No sign of trouble.”
Xena nodded. “The kids just ran around the woods all day. Picked up some rocks and flowers. No intruders, no nuggets, no nothing.” She put her hands behind her head and stretched her legs out, crossing them at the ankles. “No sign of trouble.”
“That’s about what I said. Huh.” Xena agreed. “As in, what the what?”
Gabrielle turned her head and regarded Xena’s profile. “Do we want to sit down and try to make sense of this?” She watched the muscles across Xena’s cheek twitch in reaction, and her chest moved in a deep breath.
“Now? Not really. I want to go to bed.” Xena replied, somewhat predictably, glancing back at her. “Let’s talk about it in the morning.” She amended, seeing Gabrielle’s expression. “C’mon hon, It’s late.”
Gabrielle got up, turning to lean on one knee braced on the porch seat as she put her hand on Xena’s shoulder. The light coming through the window put them in shadow, only slightly countered by the moonlight coming through the trees. “I know it’s late.”
Xena drew breath to speak, but Gabrielle very gently put two fingertips against her lips. “But you know what? It doesn’t matter, Xe.” She said. “Whatever happened, the truth is you would have done it.”
“You would have.” Gabrielle repeated firmly. “You know you would have.” She studied her face intently. “Maybe you could have. Maybe you did. Maybe it was that important to you just like Dori was.”
“Just like living was.” Gabrielle added softly.
Xena sighed. “You imagine me to be a lot more than I am, you know that?” She said, in a plaintive tone.
Gabrielle kissed her again, this time longer, and more insistently. “Maybe I do.” She said, her lips still brushing Xena’s. “But I don’t give a damn. It’s my imagination and I’ll let it go wherever it darn wants to if you like it or not.” She straightened a little and looked Xena in the eye. “Got me?”
Xena smiled wryly, her shoulders moving in the faintest of shrugs, head in the briefest of shakes as Gabrielle resumed kissing, their bodies coming together in a fierce embrace.
They paused briefly, foreheads touching. “Well.” Xena finally sighed. “It happened.”
In the distance, the owl softly hooted, then with a soft whir of its wings, went off into the night.
“C’mon let’s go inside.” Gabrielle got up off the bench, her hand still clasped in Xena’s as she also stood and they walked to the door and pushed it open, moving from the faint chill of the outside into the wash of warmth from the fireplace as Xena gently booted the door shut behind them.
It was good to be home. Gabrielle felt her shoulders relax as she removed the cloak around them, and draped it over the back of a chair. Then she walked over and knelt by the fire, picking up the iron tongs to add wood to it from the pile nearby.
The warmth of it felt good on her skin, and she closed her eyes to savor it for a moment, listening to the sound of Xena moving behind her and letting that wash old memories into her mind’s eye of times past when they’d come to the end of a long day.
When the nights darkness had gathered and removed the world around them leaving behind, sometimes, just the fire and them and the soft crunch of Argo munching grass nearby. Intimate, even if they were on the side of a road somewhere or under a tree.
She paused, for a moment to reflect, in silence about the road she and Xena walked sometimes – about how hard, and how painful it had been and might yet be but what a gift it was that they walked it together and ended each day no matter what that day had held like this.
Something else occurred to her. “Know something Xe?”
“I’m about to.” Xena replied wryly. “Ya done there?” She finished removing her armor and laying it down in its cabinet and hanging her sword up on its hooks.
“Almost.” Gabrielle added another log. “What I was going to say was after the festivals done I’m going to write down that story I came up with. The one for the gods?”
“Im going to send it out to the Academy in Athens.” Gabrielle stood and turned, resting her elbow on the mantel as she closed the empty tongs in her hand. “What do you think? I kind of want them to know we’re out here.”
Xena folded her arms and regarded her thoughtfully. “Might stir up trouble.”
Xena’s eyes twinkled. “Do it.” She said. “I like a little trouble in my life. That’s why I married you.”
Gabrielle chuckled in reaction, flipping the tongs over in her hand and then seated them in their holder as she brushed her hands off. “Says the pot calling the frypan.” She said. “All right. I’ll pick up a stack of new parchment in the market and get that done.”
“If they come asking for you to tell it in Athens..” Xena’s eyes narrowed in mock warning.
“I’ll make em send a huge, snazzy yacht for us and have a palace waiting with servants to polish your armor, hon.” Gabrielle responded, with a gently wicked grin. “You liked that nice big bathtub last time, remember?”
“It was the ONLY thing I liked.” Xena picked up the cloak and added it with her own to the hooks near the door. Then she walked over to the press against the wall and sat down to unlace her boots, pulling them off and the socks under them and wiggling her toes. “Well, that and those mint spiced lambchops.”
“You need new boots.” Gabrielle commented, as she sat down in one of the comfortable chairs in front of the fire to take off her own. “I hear there’s some nice hides to be had down in the market.” She noted, watching Xena roll her eyes. “C’mon, you know its better than sheepskin.”
“I can patch em.” Xena objected. “Anything to avoid shopping.” She slipped out of her leathers and tossed them onto her arming bench, adding her underwraps a moment later leaving her naked and bathed in the light from the fire.
“Hah you only avoid it for yourself.” Gabrielle shook a finger at her, giving Xena an affectionate look and then standing up and going over to their clothing cabinet to remove two plain shifts. “I saw those sacks you brought
Xena reached over and grabbed the shifts, tossing them over her shoulder back onto the press as she bumped Gabrielle towards the bed, reaching for the laces of her shirt. “We can argue about shopping in the morning.” She said, loosening the fabric.
“Sounds good to me.” Gabrielle said, ducking her head as her shirt was removed, and they tumbled into the large, soft bed that smelled of clean linen and a touch of pine from the press. “Oh, damn that feels good.” She let out a long exhale as her muscles relaxed.
“It does.” Xena stretched her body out and reached over to the oil lamp at the side of the bed, turning it down and leaving them with just the light from the fireplace. “I do love this bed.” She extended her arm and gently ran her fingers through Gabrielle’s hair, watching her eyes slowly blink. “And you in it.”
Gabrielle chuckled, rolling onto her side and putting her hand around Xena’s arm, letting her thumb drift across the skin on the inside of her elbow. “I love you even if we were on the ground outside in the rain, hon.” She started putting kisses up the length of her forearm. “But I’ll take this when I can get it.”
A gentle breeze came in the window and brushed over them and Xena paused to listen, but the night sounds were only the ones she expected to hear, and she felt a sense of relief that finally let her body relax. She put all her thoughts firmly aside then and focused on the moment, savoring the now.
The now of this night, disregarding the chaos of the day, dismissing all the odd things that had plagued them and concentrating instead on the touch of Gabrielle’s lips on her skin and the pleasure that was to come.
She leaned over and nibbled gently at the edge of Gabrielle’s ear, feeling the faint puff of air against her skin as it caused a faint laugh. She could smell woodsmoke and leaves in her hair, and the fading scent of the linen shirt she’d had on and as she exhaled, that’s all that mattered.
Even with her eyes closed, Xena could sense the approach of dawn. Some of that was innate. Some was the so subtle shift of the sounds coming in the window, and she smiled a little bit, anticipating the creep of the sun through the trees and the first sound of birdsong.
She opened her eyes to the shadows of the cabin, only the faintest glow from the almost dead fire touching the gray with any color. She drew in a breath, and the thought occurred to her that she’d like to see the dawn arrive and she turned her head and waited for her vision to sharpen.
Gabrielle was deeply asleep, her breathing slow and even, one arm draped over Xena’s stomach and the other curled over her head.
Gently Xena shifted and put a hand on her shoulder, squeezing slightly and watching her face take on tension and her eyes open, looking up in question and alarm. “Shh.” She reassured her. “I’m just going to go outside.”
Gabrielle half smiled, nodded, then closed her eyes again, removing her arm to let Xena sit up and swing her legs over the edge of the bed to stand. “Bring me back a flower.”
Xena took a linen shirt from the press and pulled it over her head. “Sure.” She pulled on a pair of casual, loose half boots and ran her fingers through her hair on the way to the door. “Bring ya a whole bunch and you can make tea with em.”
Gabrielle kept her eyes closed, but chuckled softly.
Xena closed the cabin door behind her and stepped into the chill mountain air, briefly wishing she’d stopped to sling her cloak over her shoulders. She exhaled and could see her breath before her, but after a moments worth of walking her body adjusted.
She walked across the small plateau the cabin was settled on and went between the trees, heading through the forest towards the edge of the mountainside above where the shrines were built.
That brought her past the old apple tree and she patted it’s trunk with affection as she passed, glancing up and wondering if there wasn’t a fruit or two there she could bring back for breakfast. It was hard to see in the shadows – the moon had set – but she thought she could see the outline of one.
Past the little grove the tree had grown in, she went between pine trees and oaks, walking along a faint hunting path until she reached the edge of the cliff and paused to look out over the river valley.
Beneath her were the shrines on their ledge, off to the left. But here she could see out over the open space, catching a faint glimpse of the river far below and the road that wound along aside it on it’s way past Potadeia, and then to the pass between the hills.
There was no movement on the road, but she expected none. The market now still had a few days to run and from the laughter and shouts she’d heard last night she expected the merchants and visitors to be rolled up in their bedrolls sleeping the night off.
There was an air of expectance, and she looked to the east, to the horizon, as the breeze died down and she could almost sense, almost taste the coming dawn as she rested her hand on a nearby tree, taking a moment to appreciate the quiet, and the inevitability of the sky turning from a deep, inky black to dark blue as she watched.
Sparing a thought of gratitude, for what had happened the previous day, another in a long list of second chances she’d been given in her life.
She glanced down at the shrines, which were lit by the oil lamps outside their entrance, the ground in front of them quiet and still and after a brief pause she walked along the ridge to the rappelling tower and let one of the ropes down.
The hemp felt rough and dry against her hands as she climbed down it, hitching the rope on one of the spikes at the bottom and tying a quick knot in it just in case anyone got any funny ideas to pull it back up.
She moved quickly through the bushes and emerged in front of the shrines, going over to take a seat on the rock in front of them to continue to watch the sky. She braced her hands behind her and leaned back on them, extending her legs out and crossing her ankles.
The dark blue moderated to a lighter one, and spread across the horizon. She briefly glanced around, seeing a bit of dirt and pebbles out of place from the ceremony they’d performed, but nothing unexpected. Behind her she could sense the energy of the shrines, and hear the faint flicker of the lamps as they burned low.
Just after dawn, someone would come up to fill them, one of the militia, who would ride to the edge of the cliff and climb up the steep stairs, an honor that rotated through the troops of their own volition.
She watched the dawn brighten the eastern horizon and like the first time they’d consecrated the shrines, the sun emerged from behind the treeline and lit her with a warm, reddish light as a new day started, bringing to her ears bird song, and the sound of the river.
Up at the cabin, she knew Dori and Cari would be stirring, and Gabrielle would be getting out of bed and rebuilding the fire, getting water in the tea pot and setting it on, and rummaging around to put something on the table for breakfast.
She was content to sit on her rock and let the sun go from red orange to pink, to let it warm her skin as the light breeze started up again and gently pushed the dark bangs back off her forehead, enjoying a moment of contentment as the surprise gift it was.
The sense of energy behind her changed, and she turned her head to see Ares walking towards her, a faint smile playing across his lips. “Ah.” She said. “It’s you.”
He sat down next to her and regarded the sunrise. “Hello, beautiful.” He greeted her casually. “How’s things in mortville?”
Xena smiled briefly. “How’s things on Olympus?” She countered. “Haven’t seen you in a while.”
“Not bad.” He said. “Had to straighten some stuff out with the rents, bust some chops, the usual.” He looked sideways at her. “Fix some screwups.”
Xena studied his face. Then she nodded. “If you did that thing, thanks.” She said, straightforwardly. “It was going to a bad place.”
He also nodded. “It was.” He answered, just as straightforwardly. “You had it figured out. Just wasn’t supposed to go down like that. Big daddyo rule break. Someone paid big time.”
Xena felt utterly relieved. “Good.” She responded quietly. “It felt like we were being.. “She paused.
“Messed with?” Ares’ lips quirked.
“Yeah.” Xena said. “Pissed me off.”
The God of War chuckled. Then he looked sideways at her again. “Worked out. Me and Dite can visit ya again. Pops thought you were due a chill period. Wouldn’t have gotten so screwed up if we’d been around.”
Xena thought about that for along minute, her eyes blinking a few times in the brightening sunlight. “Good.” She finally said, with a smile. “I missed ya.”
Ares dark brows knit, then he shifted to half turn to face her. “Seriously?”
Xena nodded. “Yeah.” She confirmed. “Glad you’re back.”
Ares turned his head and regarded the sun, a pleased smile shaping his lips. “Then maybe it was all worth it.” He murmured, almost under his breath. “Who knew?”
“Nevermind.” The God of War got up and dusted his hands off. “Here comes one of your pigstickers. Later.” He casually snapped his fingers, disappearing in a brief flash of baby blue.
Xena kicked her heals against the edge of the rock, and then she got up and went to the sturdy posts at the edge of the ledge and looked down to see one of her militia trotting up the steps, a canvas sack on his back. She took a step back then she turned and made her way back to the rope, untying it.
She crouched down, and then recoiled up into the air, catching hold of the rope above her head and swarming up it and back to the upper ridge.
Gabrielle hummed softly under her breath as she dug in her stores box near the hearth. The morning light was starting to flicker through the trees and into the windows and the interior of the cabin echoed with the giggles of Dori and Cari playing in the bathing room. “Don’t make a big mess you two.”
“Mama!” Dori appeared in the doorway, a wooden duck in her hands. “We eat?”
“Soon, honey.” Gabrielle held up the bowl in her hand. “Mama’s making pancakes for you little pirates.”
“Pacakes!?” Dori’s face lit up “Go mama!!” She disappeared with an excited squeal. “Car we gots pacakes!”
Gabrielle chuckled, as she mixed up the batter, her large cast iron pan already poised above the fire. She had a few pieces of end of the winter fruit on the table, and a half a loaf of bread she vaguely remembered bringing up from Cyrene’s inn.
She poured the first set of pancakes out and a moment later they were sizzling, giving off a sweet, delicate smell. “Too bad we don’t have any berries.” She remarked. “Just have to settle for a little honey, I guess.”
She heard a motion outside and glanced out the window, just as Jessan leaned on the sill from the outside, giving her a casual wave. “Hey Jess, good morning.”
“Morning!” The forest dweller returned the greeting.
They looked at each other for a long moment. Then Jess sniffed appreciatively. “Whatever that is, smells great.” He said. “I won’t invite myself.”
Gabrielle smiled as she flipped the cakes. “C’mon in. Xe just went out to watch the sun rise. She should be back soon.”
Jessan entered and closed the door behind him. “I came over to ask you a favor.” He sat down on the couch. “I saw a bunch of stuff in the market yesterday on our way in. You up to help me shop?” He asked. “Nobody’ll bargain with me.”
So. Gabrielle set the done cakes into her deep pan and covered it, while she poured out a second set. “Sure.” She agreed easily. “Dori said she had fun with your kids yesterday.”
“They said.” Jessan nodded. “They brought back all kinds of Ares knows what I’ll have to carry back to the valley.” He extended a long, fur covered arm across the back of the couch. “It’s nice to visit you and just have everything be normal, you know?”
Gabrielle set several of the cakes onto a wooden platter, drizzled some honey over them and walked over to hand it to him. “It sure is.” She went back to the table. “C’mon, kiddos. Come get some pancakes.”
Dori and Cari ran out of the bathing room, dripping wet, leaving dark footprints behind them. The two round headed dogs chased after them and shook themselves vigorously, sending a mist of cold water to spatter Gabrielle’s knees.
“Oh my goodness what have you kids been doing?” Gabrielle put two plates down as the girls climbed up onto their seats. “You’re all wet!”
“Gone to fishes, mama.” Dori had already rolled up a pancake and now she stuck it in her mouth. “Mm.” She sat there, water dripping off her wet hair, energetically chewing. “Gooooooood!”
“Mm!” Cari copied her.
“Mm!” Jessan went along with the crowd, giving her a wink. “Xena better hurry up if she wants any.”
Gabrielle glanced out the window, already sensing that familiar energy approaching and saw Xena emerge from the forest, one hand closed around a fistful of flowers, and the other balancing a leaf basket. “I think she heard you.”
The weather was perfect. Warm sun, cool breeze, a grand spring day as they went through the Amphipolis town gates and started for the market.
Gabrielle found herself seeing it all with newly appreciative eyes, savoring every moment of the gently waving river grass, unstained by blood or soldier’s trampling, and the relaxed laughter of the militia who were strolling out of the barracks casually relaxed.
Everyone glad. Everyone happy, enjoying the weather and looking forward to the festival that was getting rolling across the river.
Dori and Cari were on Rusty’s back, only barely keeping from breaking into a gallop, and Toris was just behind them with his sons and Granella, talking to Gabrielle’s family about planting and crops, and new baby lambs.
Jessan and his kids were on the other side of Xena, Butterbean perched on her father’s shoulders.
Gabrielle could smell grilling already from the square and she remembered, in a brief sobering flash, the smell of the pyre that now only she and Xena would carry in their memories and she knew a moment of gratitude for that.
It was part of the whole greater good thing, wasn’t it? She looked sideways at Xena, who had a thoughtful look on her face. “What’cha thinking about?” She asked, reaching out in reflex to grab Rusty’s bridle.
“I think.” Xena said, regarding the colorful scene across the bridge. “I think I smell cinnamon bread.” She concluded. “Let’s get over there before they run out.”
Gabrielle put her thoughts aside and took Xena’s hand in hers, as they reached the crossing and went from the path onto the wooden structure, walking across the moving water whose surface was licking the sturdy stanchions. The spring melt was finally here.
But it was no danger this time. They’d built the banks up, and the bridge high over the surface of the water, and the braces were firmly planted deep into the ground. To one side of the bridge one of the militia was fishing, playing his line into the current with skillful hands.
“Any luck?” Xena asked him as they passed.
“Got two already, Xena.” The man smiled at her. “Promised my lady fresh for dinner and she’ll get it.”
“Good man.” Xena smiled back, and they went on across and up the far bank to the market square, where the town was already gathering along with a sizable contingent of Amazons, the merchant stalls all open and doing a brisk business.
On the rise to the left, was the town merchants area, where residents brought their wares down from their stores up behind the gates for sale. That was where the scent of cinnamon was coming from and Xena steered her towards it.
Just past that, was the small, tree ringed spot that the Amazons had claimed, now busy setting up their tables full of hides, game jerky, and wooden crafts, along with the alcove where Nala was arranging her anvil and iron tools.
Gabrielle looked past that, and paused, her fingers closing on Xena’s arm in reflex as the crowd of Amazons thinned and she could see past them into a thatched hut where Renas and Das were arranging their jewelry, laughing at the shoppers trying to see what they had for sale.
She drew in a breath and released it. Surrounding her were the newly graduated juniors, helping with the tables, proudly wearing their new rank markers.
Xena half turned and handed her a cinnamon cake. “You okay?”
“Yeah.” Gabrielle took the cake and nibbled it. It was hot and fresh, newly out of the portable oven of their town baker. Xena gave one to each of the children and licked her thumb, giving her a wink as they moved on to the next stall. “Hey, be right back.”
Xena looked at her in question.
Gabrielle pointed at the Amazons area, giving her a brief, knowing smile.
Xena reached over and gently patted her cheek. “Let it go, hon.” She advised. “Just enjoy the day, huh?”
“I will.” Gabrielle bumped her with one shoulder. “Maybe I’ll buy you a pin.”
“Like they’d let you.” Xena watched her move off, winding through the crowd. She turned back to her little posse who were busy smearing cinnamon over their faces, Dori in the act of handing a piece of the cake to her pony. “Dori!”
“He’s hungry Boo!”
The Amazons turned as Gabrielle approached, recognizing her. The elders seemed pleased to see her, the juniors excited. “Hi.” She greeted them. “Busy huh?”
Renas nodded in satisfaction. “Got the last of our lot out here.” She indicated the table, which had necklaces and bracelets laid out, along with ear cuffs and the intricate twisted rings that Das was good out. “If’d we’d have done twice what we did we probably coulda sold them too.”
“We coulda.” Das agreed, with a smile. “We’ll know for next festival.”
Gabrielle shifted her eyes to the juniors, who were hovering, hoping to be noticed. “Good morning, warriors.” She greeted them, as Cait sidled up to her, standing just behind her shoulder with quiet diffidence.
Tarah finished straightening the line of necklaces. “Good morning, your Majesty.” She said. “There’s a lot of people here.” She looked around the market, and shook her head. “Wow.”
“Wow.” Sali echoed her, a bright grin on her face. “I sure want to learn a craft now. So much stuff!”
Renas chuckled. “You kids.” She rolled her eyes.
“They’re not kids anymore, Renas.” Gabrielle said. “Remember?”
Renas eyed her. “To me, you’re still a kid.” She said. “So gimme a break, okay, Gabrielle?”
Gabrielle started laughing in reflex, and after a frozen second, everyone joined her. Then she untied a small bag at her waist and tossed it at Tarah. “There. Share it out.” She indicated the rest of the juniors. “You guys go have some fun, and buy yourselves something to celebrate graduating.”
Tarah caught the bag, a startled look on her face. “Really?”
“Really.” Gabrielle shooed them off. “G’wan. Just make sure you come back here to help us pack up.”
Tarah’s face burst into a happy grin. “Yes ma’am.” She tossed the bag up and gestured to her age mates. “Let’s go guys. I want those gauntlets we saw!”
“Thank you, your Majesty.” Sali reached over and squeezed her hand. “It’s been awesome so far. I’ll never forget this.”
They ran off into the crowd. Gabrielle folded her arms and turned back towards the stalls, watching several of the visitors cluster around a seated Paladia, pointing at some of her finished works.
“Kids.” Renas snorted, rolling her eyes. “Was that a good use of coin?”
“Yeah.” Gabrielle told her. “Hey I made it. Now let me go buy some parchment so I can earn us more.” She unfolded her arms and hitched her thumbs into her leather belt. “Have a good market, everyone. Lets all have some fun.”
At the back of the stall, someone started tapping a drum. Across the square, a piper was warming up. A moment later Xena’s arm was sliding around her and a mug of cider was put in her hand.
It really was a new day.
End. (for now)