A Change of Seasons

Part 2

The next morning there was heavy fog and mist, and Xena’s cloak stirred clouds of it to disperse at her feet as she made her way down the mountain.

She was alone.  Gabrielle and the girls had turned off into the Amazon village, to start the long day’s series of events that would end up with the festival that evening.

Xena had her own part to play but not until much later and she descended through the mist towards the town with her carrysack over her shoulder, the two gift knives clinking faintly within it along with a pouch full of dinars to spend.

The fog was thick at the gates, but the soldiers heard her coming and knew her steps and they were already shoving the doors open to let her pass as she got to the bottom of the path. “Morning.”

“Morning, Ge… Xena.” The soldiers returned the greeting.   “Feels like swimming yeah?”

“Yeah.” Xena strolled past them and through the town, cottages on either side of the main path lit from within by the flickering of oil lamps still, visible through the closed shutters throwing faint streaks of light on the gray fog outside.

A chicken ran across the path ahead of her, and she could hear the cows lowing in the larger barns down the hill as they were milked.

She turned up the smaller, stone lined track to the inn and went in the side door, coming into the room just behind the table her family usually used where Toris and Granella were seated with a pitcher and platter between them. “Morning.”

“Hey sis.” Toris nudged the pitcher her way.  “Hope this burns off.”

“It will.” Xena sat down and opened her sack, removing the two knives and handing them over. “There ya go.”

“Oh, nice.” Granella picked one up and examined it.  “Who needs a market.” She looked up at Xena and grinned. “We’ve got you.”

Xena returned the smile, and poured herself a cup of mulled cider. 

Toris was looking at the other one. “Y’know, Xe.” He regarded her in somewhat seriousness.  “You could do this, and furniture and make a nice living.”  He turned the hilt over, looking at the neatly carved curves in the horn designed to fit a small hand.

“True.” Granella agreed. “I heard the kids talking down at the tribe’s booth – you’re a kickass metalsmith according to them.”

One of the servers appeared and spotted her, turning around and scooting back into the kitchen without saying anything. 

“Well.” Xena leaned back in her seat. “Weapons making kinda comes with that whole warlord lifestyle.” She enjoyed the taste of the cider as she scanned the room. It was sparsely populated, the hour too early yet for all the visitors to wake up and want to have some breakfast.

And some, the merchants would want to use their own stores and avoid the cost.

The server reappeared with a plate and slid it in front of Xena, then disappeared again.

Toris chuckled. “Nice to be known, huh?”

“Sometimes.” His sister responded dryly.  “When it’s a hatchet being thrown at you, not so much.”

“That doesn’t happen much any more does it?” Granella asked. “At least in these parts.”

“No.” Xena said. ‘Not so much.”

The outer door of the inn opened, and a group entered, pushing back their cloaks and looking around.  Two middle aged men that Xena pegged as merchants, a younger man with a newly fledged look to him, wispy pale blond hair and only down on his face.

Two younger women, one of whom seemed slightly familiar to her, and a young boy who was maybe six.  One of the servers went over to them.

“Starting early.” Toris observed.

Xena nodded, propping one booted foot up onto her knee as she nibbled on a piece of freshly baked bread and cheese.  “Been a long winter. I’m not surprised people are showing up here.”

“Some pilgrims came in overnight for the shrines they told me.” Her brother said.  So I guess that got out too.” He took a sip of his cider, as Granella carefully tucked the two knives away in her belt pouch. “Thanks for the gifts, by the way, I know the boys are going to love them.”

Xena smiled and dusted her fingers off. “I’m going down across the river.” She stood up, and twitched her cloak in place. “See what’s going on.”

“I’ll go with you.” Toris also stood. “Gran’s going up the hill.”

They walked around the table and went out the side door, emerging into a soft orange dawn reflecting off the fog that parted before them.

More people were about, and they returned greetings as they headed downslope to the bridge, wreathed in mist rising from the river.

It had a beauty to it.  Xena could hear the sounds of the festival grounds drifting over, voices, the sound of the big cookfire in the central pit snapping lightly, the pound of a mallet against a tent peg being raised.

Odd and a little thought provoking, coming to this normality after everything.  Xena glanced at the barge landing as they reached the bridge and started to cross it. That she had come to call this home again, after traveling so far both in land and her own person.

Something Toris had said was niggling at her, and she worried it out of her memory, thinking about her creation of the knives.   That her skill at that, and crafting made her place here in Amphipolis.

As though life, moving forward would not be centered around her being both a polarizing presence, and a requirement to defend the town against it.

“Dinar for your thoughts?” Toris said, as they were halfway across.

Xena reached out to touch the hardened wood of the railing. “Just thinking.” She said. “Nothing in particular.” She pointed up the river. “Thought it would be higher – I know there was plenty of snow up in the mountains.”

Toris glanced past her.  “Hey, don’t’ wish us a problem, sis.” He said. “Maybe it’s still frozen up there. Let’s get our festival in before we worry about flooding.”

“We leveled this up.” Xena leaned forward as they climbed up the slope to the festival grounds, which, after they’d rebuilt it been raised up. 

Lines of logs, split and fit into the ground and covered with earth, forming a berm, that now was being grown with thick and tufted river grass.  Up from the bridge the path led up to steps they now both climbed. 

As they walked across the new growth, Xena could smell the crisp green smell of it, and the fog was thinning out replaced by wood smoke.

Cait appeared as if from the fog itself, dropping into place next to Xena. “Hello! Good morning.”

“Same to you.” Xena said. “Quiet night?”

“Very.” Cait confirmed. “Lots of people coming in today.” She observed. “They sent quite a lot up to the inn just now.”

They paused at the edge of the ground to look across it.  Today, the merchant stalls were mostly claimed, and there were buskers already gathered near the fire. “Ready for tonight?” Xena turned and eyed Cait.

Cait just grinned back.

“There are the pilgrims.” Toris pointed. “I’m going to go talk to them. Make sure they know where to go.” He moved off towards the group.

“What is it they’re going to do?” Cait asked.

Xena pondered.  “Make an offering, probably.” She said. “Like we did when we opened the shrines.”

Cait glanced down at her hand, which bore a thin, white scar that matched the one on Xena’s. “Did that really mean anything?”

Xena looked around then half turned to face her. “When Ares’ accepted it, yes.” She said quietly. “When you look into the altar, you can see it.”

Cait digested that thoughtfully. “Is all the good luck here now because of that, Xena? Was it like a pact?” She looked up at her mentor in question, as the morning light slanted across Xena’s tall form and sparkled off her pale blue eyes. “People are saying that.”

Xena thought about that for a long moment. “Well.” She finally concluded. “It’s possible. But it’s also possible we’re just due for a change.”  She said. “Or it’s something else.”

Cait nodded. “I don’t think it’s simple, really.” She remarked in a placid tone. “Otherwise those things would be all over the place, wouldn’t they? You’d trip over them going up the road.”

Xena chuckled softly.  “C’mon. Help me find some presents.” She pointed over to the stalls.  “Might as well get first pick.”

“And they have honey cakes over there.” Cait didn’t miss a beat. 

“Mm.”

**

Gabrielle leaned forward and sorted the parchments in front of her, a quill in one hand as she studied them.  The room was full of some slight activity here in the early hours, the big council chamber providing a place to meet and work for the rest of the tribe as well as herself.

She could have taken everything to her quarters.  But she’d made a habit of making herself available in the mornings to anyone who wanted to have a chat, and that was easier on everyone if she did it here, rather than back in the secluded area.

The old tension in the village was gone.  Gabrielle knew she wasn’t just imagining that either. She could remember times when she’d sat at this table and felt her nape hairs prickle as one or the other person had entered and had known that every breath she took in public was studied.

And critiqued.

Now, though there were a few of her sisters scattered about at various tables in the room she could sense a peace that for once included her.

Her staff was leaning against the wall nearby, it was true. But now she carried it mostly because it was expected to go armed in the village and she’d learned enough to know that some traditions it made no sense to ignore. She also had a belt knife on.

One that had history, and that people in the village knew had been used to take blood with though she hadn’t used it for anything but cutting meat and bread recently.

Still, it was part of what she put on when she came here, even in the leggings, boots and linen shirt she was wearing in deference to the spring chill.

“Your majesty?”

Gabrielle looked up to find the children’s teachers standing there. “Morning.” She straightened a little. “Ready to sign off?”

They took the words as an invitation to sit and they did, two middle aged women with scatterings of gray hair and scars, who had taken on the task of minding the youngers and who would be giving up some of them to the tribe that night.

They were teachers, and to some extent, baby sitters, who were here to give her their opinion on the six youngsters who were going to graduate into the group of junior warriors, who would start learning to take on the responsibilities of the tribe.

They would be given bows, and knives, and be taken on hunting parties, learn to rappel through the trees, and come under Eponin’s scrutiny as they learned weapons, adding martial skills to the tracking and woodcraft they had already started.

It was an important moment for them.  They would also start to climb that internal hierarchy that was so much a part of the Amazons that had taken Gabrielle quite a long time to understand herself.  “So.”

“So.” The nearer minder said.

Gabrielle reached into her carrysack and pulled out a fistful of objects. “Here you go.” She put them on the table, six bits of color and feathers, to be worn usually in the hair.  These had river pebbles interspersed with bits of silver and the feathers were gray and ochre with splashes of tan. 

Suz, the minder examined them. “These are really nice.” She said. “I thought Das and Renas would be too busy with the festival to make anything. We were going to see what we could do today for it.”

Gabrielle nodded. “Yeah I figured they would be too.  I made these.” She added casually. “And the feathers are hawks. Xena climbed up and got them from those two nests.”

Both minders regarded her with some surprise.  “Wow.”  Suz said. “Now I wish I was a junior again.” She said. “Those kids are going to flip out, huh Ary?”

Aryana nodded. “That was nice of you to do, Gabrielle.” She said. “I mean, really.”

A small thing, true.  Gabrielle was satisfied with the reaction.  She’d found an old scroll, down in one of the casements of them in the tribe archives that had described the things, and shown Xena, who’d just smiled, but agreed to help.

So of the six.” Ary said. “Talah is the oldest, and she’s been wanting to move up for a year at least.” She consulted a small piece of parchment, and Suz leaned over to inspect it as well. “She’s ambitious.”

Some were.  Gabrielle nodded.  “Her and Gena, the most I think.”

Both minders nodded.  “It’s true.  Balas and Juna are just jokesters. They’ll be good guards, and Balas has some good hunting skills already.” Suz said. “Dina and Sali.. they’re both a little slow.” She looked at up at Gabrielle. “Not great learners of anything much.”

Gabrielle smiled. “Neither was I but I got over it.”  She remarked. “Maybe we can find them the right teacher.”

Ary smiled back at her. “Only one  like yours, no offense your Majesty.”

“True.” Their queen agreed, with a twinkle in her eyes. “But you never know.”

“They’ve all started their monthly cycles.” Suz said. “So, really I think they’re ready.”  She glanced at Ary. “You?”

Ary studied the parchment and ran her eyes over the list one more time, before she looked up and nodded. “I think so too.” She paused. “Though like you said, with Dina and Sali – they might not make it more than junior.”

Gabrielle studied the list, then she looked up. “Do all of them want to stay?” She asked, unexpectedly. “I mean, they know they have a choice, right? They can go down to town and train to apprentice to someone.  I talked to the council down there and they agreed.”

The two minders seemed thoughtful. 

“And, I agreed if they have any girls there who want to come up here, we’d consider it.” Gabrielle added, after a moment’s silence. “I know it’s hard to let go.”

Ary shifted a little. “We’ve always needed every warrior.” She said, after a moment, sounding a bit defensive. “So, at least I’ve never told them they had a choice.”

“Me either.” Suz agreed, quietly. “I know it’s the law, but you know.”

“I know.” Gabrielle nodded in understanding.  “Do you think we should let this group know?  I’ll do the talking, but I want your opinion and buy in.”

The two were silent and thoughtful for a while and Gabrielle just waited patiently.

“No.” Suz finally said. “Four of them, I know want it.” She said. “The other two.. I don’t think there’s anything they can go down the hill for.”

Gabrielle felt the instant resistance in her to that. She felt her hands curl a little and she knew her eyes had narrowed, just a trifle. But she’d asked for the opinion, hadn’t she?

“I’d say the same.” Ary said. “But my gut instinct is, they might go down the hill and just find a husband. Both of them can cook, a little.”

“Maybe.” Suz shrugged a little. “But I say give them a try up here first.”

“Okay.” Gabrielle agreed. “Lets see how it sorts itself out.  They have time, anyway.” She marked off the parchment and then swiveled it over, handing the quill to Suz.  “Sign off, and lets get this party started.”

Both minders looked relieved and Suz took the quill readily, dipping it and scratching her mark on the parchment before handing it over to Ary.  “Thanks, Gabrielle.”  She said. “I’m glad we could talk about it.”

“Me too.” Ary handed the quill back. “I’ll take these and we’ll go start to get ready.  This is going to be great.”  She stood up and picked up the feathers.  “See you later!”

Gabrielle watched them go, her forearms resting on the table and the quill turning gently in her fingers. “See ya.” She commented to herself. “But I wouldn’t want to be ya.”

**

The early bird, Xena considered, did often get the worm.   Her pack was already stuffed with small trinkets and luxuries for her family and now she stood listening as one of the most recently arrived merchants displayed skillfully made ocarinas with their piping birdlike tones.

Cait was nearby, bargaining for a pair of boots from a leathercrafter whose hides had caught her own attention, but she deferred moving until the ocarina vendor stopped his piping. “Nice.”

Thank you ma’am.” The vendor said, visibly pleased. “Would you care to purchase one?”

“I would.” Xena agreed.  “Give me one of those ceramic ones, and two of the little ones in wood.” She said. “And a pair of ear plugs if you have them.”

“Ma’am?” The merchant looked quickly up, with a confused expression.

“Never mind.” Xena leaned against the stall edge. “How much?”

The man studied her for a moment, then smiled. “For my first customer of the day? Half dinar for the big one, quarter for the others.”

Xena’s head tilted a bit and she let her eyes narrow.

“And it’s a good price.” He said. “Even for someone as well known as you.”

She handed over a dinar, bright and fresh and stamped with the distinctive Amphipolis crest, minted from copper found in the valley up past the Amazons village, beaten in to coinage by her own hammer. The man took it and watched it flash in the morning light before he tucked it securely in his belt pouch. 

Xena waited for her selections to be wrapped into a cloth package and tied, glancing past the booth to see a wagon trundling into the festival grounds, with six horses tied behind it.

Her eyes widened a little in reflex.  The animals were beautiful, solid colors and finely etched, dished faces that marked them as desert bred.

Xena, did you see those?” Cait was at her side, with a package under her arm. “Gosh they’re pretty.”

“They are.” Xena took her own purchase and stuffed it in her sack. “Let’s go see.”

One of the men from the town had intercepted the wagon, and two men who were riding on the seat jumped down to talk to him.   Xena circled them and studied the horses, one ear cocked to listen.

“Beauties aint they?” The nearer man said. “We heard maybe there were them here who know a thing or two about em.”

The townsman chuckled. “That’s one right there.” He pointed to Xena’s tall figure.  “Good ones, eh Xena?” He put the slightest emphasis on the name, and she caught the slight jerk of surprise from the two men

“Nice.” She turned and leaned against the wagon. “Where’d you get them?”

The men came over to her.  “We didn’t steal them.”

Xena’s eyes twinkled in wry humor. “Did I say you did?”

“We bought them off a guy on the run.” The first one said. “He said he bought them in a market overseas.”

“He probably did.” Xena moved over to examine the closest of the horses, who had his bright eye on her.  She touched one long, perfectly shaped ear and the horse butted her with his nose. “These are desert bred. Syria, maybe.”

“He likes you.”

“Horses do.” Xena agreed.  “Let’s see if he has any legs.” She untied the animal before they could protest and moved him aside. “Hold on to this.” She unstrapped her carrysack and handed it to Cait, then launched herself onboard.

B.. wait! They’re not trained!” The horse trader yelped. “Stop!”

Xena got her knees settled and turned the animal with the leading rein, then let out a whistle and aimed him down the road.

The horse saw freedom and took off at full speed, ramping up into a gallop in no time.  Xena settled into the gait, finding it smooth and powerful, the horse a bit closer to the ground than she was typically used to.

The wind whistled around her, and blew her hair back, and she let the horse run, pounding down the dirt packed road that led along the river away from the town.  Ahead of her she could see some figures approaching on the horizon, but she knew she had some time and decided to enjoy it.

The horse was dark grey, and he tossed his head and shook it, trying to rid himself of the rein.  Xena shortened her hold on it and tightened the grip of her knees, feeling the twist and the horse got ready to buck. “Ah ah ah.” She reached out and slapped his neck.  “None of that, buddy.”

A wild, dark eye peered back at her.

Then the horse hauled up and bucked, and only her powerful legs kept her onboard as he went around in a half circle, twisting and gyrating.

Xena waited it out, then she slapped him on the behind and he bolted forward again, shaking his head in irritation, and a moment later he took a hard right turn and headed for the river, racing down the bank and showing no indication he was going to stop.

“Saucy.” Xena held on and balanced her weight, pulling back on the rein and wrapping her other hand in the horses’s mane as he reached the bank and leaped up and out over the river edge, letting out a wild neigh.

He plunged into the water with Xena right behind him, both of them going under and then popping to the surface in a churn of froth and limbs.  She grabbed him around the neck as he snorted, eyes rolling wildly as he started swimming.

The water was cold, and Xena quickly stripped off her cloak to keep it from weighing her down and let it drift off.  On the edges of her hearing she caught the sounds of more horses, and whistling, and she quickly started scanning the banks for a place to get out so as not to make her militia lose their minds.

Or worse, send for Gabrielle.

The horse was breathing hard, and she patted his neck. “Easy, boy.” She said, into one backturned ear. “Got in deeper than you thought, huh?” She heard the rattling whicker and patted him again.  “Easy.”

On the town side of the river, she spotted a sloping bank, steep but achievable and she turned the horses head and slid off sideways, keeping hold of the rein and wrapping it around her hand as she started swimming towards the spot. “C’mon, buddy. I’ll take care of ya.”

The horse hesitated, then followed her, snorting as the current pushed against them.  Xena kicked hard against it and then reached out to grab a tree branch thrusting out into the current, pulling herself to a halt.

“C’mon.” Her boots caught against the edge of the bank and she hauled the horse along as she got to the slight slope, rising up out of the river with the animal scrambling frantically behind her. “Hey, take it easy.”

The slope was just big enough for her to get upright, then she reached up to thick bushes on the bank and grabbed hold of them, pulling herself up and onto dry ground.

That left the horse standing half in and half out of the water with the current swirling around his hind legs.  She got up and unwound the reins from her hand, backing up, and making clucking noises with her tongue. “C’mon, buddy. Jump on up here. If I could do it, you can.”

The horse huddled closer to the edge of the river, visibly shivering.   Xena extended her hand cautiously, touching his nose.  “C’mon.” She kept her voice low and calm.  “You got yourself into this, remember?”

In the distance, she heard hoofbeats heading her way and she felt a slight sense of embarrassment.  She backed up a few steps and gave the rope a gentle tug. “Let’s go.”

Her eyes met the horses. For a minute they were both still, then at the same time Xena took another step back and it was damn good she did as the animal gathered itself and leaped up, catching it’s front legs on the upper bank and thrashing with it’s hind legs.

Xena pulled back and dug her heels in, and then seconds later the horse lunged forward and slammed into her, knocking her over as he bolted past.

She had a heartbeat or two to decide what to do and she took a grip on the rope, turning over on the ground and getting her feet up under her and planted as the horse reached the end of the tether and was abruptly hauled to a stop.

Hard to say really which one of them was more surprised. The horse reared up and tried to pull his head free, but Xena just kept walking forward and pulling backward until she was under his hooves and he abruptly dropped down onto all four feet and they were there nose to nose.

The wind fluttered Xena’s shirt against her from behind and blew against the horse, and he extended his nose, nostrils flaring.

She reached out and tickled the prickly hairs on the front of his nose and then moved her hand back and stroked his face, the hair damp from the river.  “There ya go.” She smiled at him. “Bet you wont try that again any time soon will ya?”

The hoofbeats were much closer and now she looked up and past the horse to see one of the wagon animals that had been leading the purebreds careening towards her at top speed.  Atop him was a tall young man with curly red hair and a furious expression.

The black horse snorted, and Xena stepped in front of him and held one hand up, pushing her palm back towards the oncomers. “Hey! Take it easy!”  She called out. “Slow down!”

“Don’t you tell me to take it easy you crazy woman!” The man pulled his horse to a halt and leaped off his back, running towards Xena. “Let him go! How dare you take him like that!”

Xena regarded him wryly, understanding his passion for the animals but hoping he was not going to do something stupid like take a swing at her.

And then she realized he was, and she stepped deliberately forward a few paces from the horse who shifted his hooves nervously and when his fist headed for her she caught it, thrusting his arm down and against his thigh before she released him “Don’t  do that.” She warned. “You’ll spook him.”

He was tall and nicely built, young with hardened, calloused hands and they both came up in fists as he came at her again. “Get away from him!” He insisted furiously. “You could have killed the beast and he’s worth a good more than you are!”

Aww.  Xena was caught between admiration and impatience.  “Chill out.”

“Don’t you tell me that woman!” 

“I’m telling you that.”  Xena’s hands came up as well and she felt her balance come up over the balls of her feet, her body stretching and smiling internally as it got ready to fight.  “You’re gonna get hurt.” She warned. “Just relax and lets talk.”

The irony of that made her chortle internally.  She knew the kid wasn’t going to back down, and she knew she could virtuously tell Gabrielle later on that she’d asked him to talk first.

Fun all around for her, at least.

“Hades with you.” He came at her with a good pugilistic style and she evaded a nice combination move and slipped between his guard to pop him in the nose, rocking his head back. “Now you’ve got me mad.”

Xena just chuckled, ducking again as he came back at her and opening her hand to give him a slap on the cheek. “C’mon kid. You gotta do better than that.”

He pulled a belt knife out and brandished it. “How do you like this!”

Xena made a sideways move and grabbed his wrist, clamping down hard and squeezing, feeling the bones grate and shift under her grip.  She heard the intake of breath and felt the knife drop in front of her as she released his arm and threw a roundhouse punch at his jaw with a sideways twist of her body.

She felt and heard the crack and stepped forward, putting her boot on the knife and her weight over it as he stumbled to one side blinking. “Stop it.” She warned. “You’re going to end up in pieces, kid..

“I’m not a kid!” The boy roared. “You stole my horse!”

“Just trying him out.” Xena disagreed. “I’m gonna buy him.”’

“Never.”

Xena leaned over and picked up the knife, juggling it in her hand. “He’s not for sale?”

“Not to you.” The boy lifted his head in arrogant pride. “And he wouldn’t have you anyhow! He’ll kill you!” He said. “He’s a fighting horse! A stallion! He wont’ have you!”

All the while, the black horse had simply stood watching, and the horse the man had ridden had wandered off and was cropping grass nearby.  Now the black animal eased up behind Xena and put his head down on her shoulder, regarding the red haired man with a speculative dark eye.

“He…” The man stopped and stared. He straightened and his hands dropped to his sides. “You bastard!” He addressed the horse. “What’s that!”

The horse let air out his lips in a flutter, spraying saliva on Xena’s cheek. 

“Atta boy.” Xena gave him a tolerant look. “Spit on me. I love it.”  She wiped her face with her damp sleeve and gave the horse a kiss just above his eye. “I got a nice paddock waiting for ya.” She whispered. “With girls in it.”

The ear twitched.

A whistle sounded.  Xena looked to her right and saw a squad of militia across the river, watching her anxiously. She lifted a hand and made a sign, and they visibly relaxed.  “You done trying to come at me?” She asked the young man. “I don’t mind a good fight but I got things to do including buying this horse.”

The red headed boy’s lips twitched, then his broad and bony shoulders relaxed . “How did you do that?” He demanded. “He’s wild. No one can touch him he’s bitten me raw and broken the leg of our drover.”

Xena reached up and scratched the horse’s cheek, stroking him confidently and giving him a kiss.   “Nah.” She felt the long lashes on the animal’s eyes brush the side of her face.  “He’s a good boy.”   She glanced across the river, watching her men watch her.

Understanding if the red haired lad made a move at her again they’d all drive their mounts into the water and swim to her rescue.

Silly and idiotically unnecessary and it made her smile anyway despite knowing she’d likely end up having to dive in after them and haul them out. 

She let out a set of whistles, and they backed off from the bank, reluctantly.  Then she patted the horse on the neck. “C’mon buddy.  Let me go introduce you to your new family.”

“No.” The boy shook his head. “Not yet. I want to know how you did that.”

Xena regarded him with a half smile.

“It’s my price.” His head lifted into an arrogant tilt. “You want him? You show me your tricks. Tell me how.”

“How about you start with not trying to attack people if you don’t know who they are?” Xena suggested mildly. “You’ll end up living to learn longer that way.”  She casually booted the knife still on the ground up to her hand and flipped it, then extended it hilt first to him.

The kid looked at her, this tall and angular woman, drenched wet and with river stains covering the tan linen shirt plastered to her body.  As he watched she folded her arms and he could see the power in her broad shoulders and the light in her pale eyes.

He rubbed his jaw thoughtfully.  His wrist still ached from her grip, and he could see bruises rising under his skin around the bones of it.  “I’ll take that as a down payment.” He finally said, reaching out to take the knife, putting it back into a worn leather sheath in the small of his back.

“Get up on your horse. I’ve got things to do.” Xena leaped easily up onto the black horse’s back and settled her legs in place, drawing the leading rein around and waiting, as the boy grudgingly went back to the cart horse and pulled himself up.  “What’s your name?”

Corman.” He responded, watching her from the corner of his eyes as she relaxed into the horse’s motion.  “And yours?”

Xena.” She replied equably. “So where’d you steal them from?”

Corman looked outrage. “Steal them?”  He yelped. “What are you saying, woman?”

“They’re from Arabia.” Xena said. “You’re not.” She said. “Desert tribes would never have sold them to you. They’re like children to them.”

Now he looked wary.  “You know those people.”

“I do.”

He eyed her. “Have you been there?”

“I have.”

“Ah.” Corman made a small noise in his throat. “Well I didn’t steal them.” He straightened up and gathered his dignity around him. “I found them.”

Xena laughed.

**

It was going to be a long night.  Gabrielle was stretched out in her quarters, one ear cocked to listen to the sounds of the village coming in the window as she faded in and out of a nap. Off on the fringes she could hear drumming, and past that, the ring of steel against steel from the sparring rings.

She pondered the thought of doing some staff work, then decided against it, feeling a trifle stiff from some midnight wrestling with Xena the night before.

Just a walk after the moon had risen, after the kids were asleep and they could only hear the sounds of their own mountain home as they walked along the path that lead up to the craggy promontory that overlooked the river, and the valley.

A beautiful night, with stars stretching overhead and owls hooting and they’d sat down on a fallen log just to enjoy it.

Until Xena’s attention span ran out and they decided to wrestle instead.  Why? The ground was frosty and it was chilly to take off their cloaks and there were prickles enough to make the whole process quite uncomfortable but had they cared?

Not at all.

Gabrielle smiled.  They ended up dirty and scraped up and that had meant a bath and a cup of hot tea and falling into the big soft bed together, just reveling in marking another day together and for now at peace.

Savor it while they could.   She stretched her body out and then resettled herself on the bed, this one not quite a big and definitely not as comfortable as the one in their cabin, but still, good enough.

Soon, she would get up and go collect her two girls, and they would go to lunch in the big central hut where the buzz had already started and big pots of festival fare were already bubbling away, casting a scent that drifted out over the village.

Her cooking lessons had taken hold.  Gabrielle folded her hands over her stomach in some content, glad at least they could spend time in the village without having her have to get ‘that look’ from Xena.  The food wasn’t as good as either Cyrene’s or her own, but at least it was palatable.

She could hear the laughter from the central campfire and then she heard footsteps heading up the path in her direction and she got up off the bed, walking back into the outer room running her fingers through her hair.   She reached her desk and sat down just as a knock came at the door. “C’mon in.”

She picked up a quill and looked up as the door opened, and Aalene poked her head in. “Hey.”

Aalene came inside and grinned. “I have a surprise.”

Gabrielle eyed her.  “Uh oh. Usually when my kid says that I get a lizard on my head a second later.”

“C’mon, Gabrielle. Would I do that? I have a kid of my own.” Aalene came over and sat down on one of the stools near her worktable. “A whole flock of ducks just took up living in the lake and they nested.” She grinned.  “We’re going to feed them a little to get them to stay.”

“That’s great!”  Gabrielle exclaimed.  “That is a surprise.  We only had those three geese last year and they flew away before the snow started.”

Aalene nodded. “There must be four dozen of them.” She said. “And we have more baby goats in the back paddock and two more lambs.”

“Wow.”

“The kids are loving those lambs.”  The younger Amazon smiled “They’re so cute.”

“They are. For now.” Gabrielle’s eyes twinkled. “But it’s quite a spring season so far huh?”

“It is.” The  young Amazon agreed.  “Everyone’s talking about it.” She paused and regarded her queen, for a brief moment their shared history almost visible in the air between them.  Aalene’s child had been born into Xena’s skilled hands at a precarious and dark time for all of them and now she was one of the children running around in outside.

A friend of Dori’s, matter of fact.

“In a good way, or a bad way?” Gabrielle asked, with a wry smile.  “I know my audience.” She continued, with a slight shrug as Aalene laughed, with an equally knowing smile back.

“Do you think it’s the shrines?” Aalene asked, straightforwardly. “That’s what I think everyone is wondering. That we were.. I don’t know, kind of struggling and then we put those shrines up, and now..” She lifted a hand and let it drop.

Gabrielle folded her arms on her table and leaned on them a little, a thoughtful expression on her face.

“I mean.. Aalene continued. “We all know you .. you and Xena, that is, we know you sort of ..

“Know them.” Her queen finished mildly.

“Yeah.”

“We do.” Gabrielle agreed. “And Xe and I, we’ve got a history with Olympus, it’s true.” She looked off into the distance a moment, then focused back on Aalene. “What I think is, yes.” She said. “I think those shrines were a good idea.”

“Uh huh.”

“I think Ares, and Aprhodite appreciated them, and I think this is their way of saying thanks.” Gabrielle concluded. “I don’t know how long it will last, but since we do know them, I think it’s a good idea to give them those offerings because they can, and they do make a difference in our lives.”

Aalene nodded. “That’s what a lot of the elders were saying.” She admitted. “They said.. it’s kinda strange you know, because we were always associated with Artemis.”

“Mm.” Gabrielle made a soft, noncommittal noise.

“And we heard, you know, about the whole thing with the war, and Artemis, and all that.” Aalene hesitated. “That.. I mean..

“That I clobbered her on the Amazon’s behalf?” Gabrielle’s pale green eyes twinkled just a bit. “It’s complicated.”

“Yeah.” Aalene smiled briefly. “No offense Gabrielle but when we get around to talking about that mostly everyone just does this.” She raised her hands and shook them. “And we just move on.”

“Us to.” Gabrielle chuckled. “Me and Xe, I mean. It doesn’t pay sometimes to think about it.  But the truth is, I felt that the Amazons in general, not just our tribe, but all of them, were being used badly and I was mad about it.  Xena was mad about it. We get that the tribes take honor in being warriors. Believe me. I get that.”

Aalene nodded. “Right, so .. it was okay I think even with the elders that we picked Ares instead.” She said. “It felt right, you know?”

Gabrielle sighed.

“That’s complicated too.” The young Amazon grinned, a little. “But anyway they’re okay with it, which is cool.”

“It’s cool.”

“And they’re glad we’re worshipping something.” Aalene concluded.  “A lot of people are saying that maybe our bad luck was because we forgot that.”

Gabrielle propped her chin up on her fist. “Well, that’s better than everyone concluding the bad luck was due to us.” She remarked dryly.  So sure. I’m glad things are going great too.  I’m looking forward to some good times for a change myself.”

Aalene smiled. “I bet.” She said. “So, anyway, after all that, what they really wanted me to ask you is – “ She drew a breath in.

“Uh oh.”

“We’re going to consecrate those new junior warriors.” Aalene plowed on.  “And we want to offer up a sacrifice to Ares for them.”

One of Gabrielle’s pale eyebrows hiked up. “A sacrifice.” She said. “What kind of sacrifice?” She asked. “Are we talking like a sheep or something?”

Aalene eyed her, with a little grimace.

**

Xena slid down off the horse’s back and handed the leading rein off to one of her grooms that had come running up. “Take it easy with him. He tried to drown me but I like him anyway.”

The groom grinned at her. “Fiery to your liking, gen’rl.” 

Corman looked like he was going to protest, then he noticed the soldiers drifting over watching him and merely sat his ground instead. 

To one side of where they’d ended up on the Amphipolis side of the river was a long paddock, and racing lanes and he looked at the herd of horses inside it with a quirk of his eyebrow. 

Beautiful animals, and large.  He could see a big gold stallion in the shade near a tree, ears pricked as he watched the black horse be led off, and a moment later Xena let out a series of whistles, and the animal surged into motion, galloping over and leaping the paddock fence in a clean motion. “Ho.”

Xena held up her hand and the stallion came to her, coming to a halt in a neatly collected way as he sniffed at her face.  “Hey boy.”  She turned and looked at Corman.  “So.”

He regarded the horses and the soldiers, and the look of respect this Xena was getting and put a brief smile on his face as he got off the cart horse and straightened out his shirt sleeves.  “Nice looking beast.”

Xena put her arm over Iolaus’ neck. “He’s all right.”  She regarded him as a casual circle of her militia drifted into the area, and Bennu came up to stand next to her.  “So now let’s talk about the rest of them.”

There were sounds of running boots behind them and Corman looked up to see Arsan, the drover coming at them with as angry a face as his own had been.  “Ah.”

“You stupid git.” Arsan pushed past the militia, who watched him with some amusement.  “Taking off with my horse and leaving us there.” He held up a handful of leather. “And cutting my rig. You’ll owe me for that, boy.”

One of the young apprentices from the town came trotting up with a linen towel and a shirt over his shoulder.  He dodged around the men and came up to Xena. “From the inn, ma’am.”

Xena regarded his six year old wide eyed earnestness and grinned. “Thanks.” She took the towel and ruffled her hair with it, draping the shirt over Iolaus’ back.  “Hey, he thought I was stealing his horse. “ She told Arsan. “So he stole yours.”

The man glowered at Corman. “And you’re an idiot to take off after a dangerous one like that.” He indicated Xena. “Fool.”

“Weren’t the first. Won’t be the last.” Bennu remarked. “What say yah, Arsan? In the brig wit him?”

“Hey wait.” Corman said. “I didn’t steal him! He’s right here!” He pointed at the horse. “Take the damn nag back!” He walked the animal over to it’s owner and held out the reins. “G’wan with you. I’ll pay off your kit after I get my price.” He eyed Xena. “Or will you just take em?”

He straightened up a little as those cold, blue eyes studied him in silence.

Genr’l won’t do that.” Bennu smiled at him. “Less you act up like.” He added, giving Arlen a squint eyed look as the surrounding militia chuckled. “Xena don’t like sassy mouths, right boys?”

“Right that, cap’n.” The riverside watch answered, from his position on the slope nearby.

Xena casually stripped off the river smelling shirt she was wearing, draping it over Iolaus’ back and then pulling the dry one on, suppressing a grin at the abrupt looks elsewhere until she was covered in fabric again. 

Corman, though, just kept staring.

“You’ll get your price, kid.” She ran her fingers through her hair and put it into some kind of order.  “Get them a merchant stall, Bennu.  Put the horses up here before someone really does steal them.”

“Nice beasts.” Her captain agreed. “Move on.” He ordered the militia. “Excitement’s over.”

Arlen took hold of his cart horse and started back across the bridge with a repeatedly shaking head and the rest of them followed.  Xena sent Iolaus back to the paddock with a cluck and a nudge, and walked along squeezing the water out of her shirt with twists of her powerful grip. 

Bennu strolled alongside them, and two of the militia casually followed them as they climbed up the slope to the bridge.  “Gave the boys a scare there, Xena.”

Xena chuckled. “C’mon, Ben. Take more than a damn horse to drown me. I was swimming in that river before I could walk.”  She finished wringing her shirt out and wrapped it around one hand, wishing she could do the same for her boots. “The kid says he found those horses tied out just inside the pass.”

“Don’t call me a kid.” Corman objected.

“What, by thesselves?” Bennu frowned. “Doesn’t sound right. That’s good quality there.”

“Agreed.  Let’s send a half dozen of the watch down the road. See if we’ve got some trouble around.” She leaned forward a little as they reached the slope and mounted the wooden path that led to the bridge.

“I didn’t steal them.” Corman said. “They were tied up. They’d eaten the grass around them, woulda starved if I hadn’t picked them up.” He added. “No one around.”

“Did you look?” Xena asked. “For more than a half candlemark?”

“Wasn’t anyone around.” Corman repeated stubbornly.  “No camp, no nothing. I was lucky to find them, that’s all.”

Xena and Bennu exchanged looks. Bennu shook his head slightly and angled off as they reached the other end of the bridge, motioning to a group of the militia who were milling around, obviously waiting for them.

“I didn’t steal them.”

“Relax.”  Xena paused as one of the runners from the inn came trotting over to her, a wineskin strapped to his back. She took the proffered cup and he filled it with a splash of the sweet spring wine, raw and fragrant. “Thanks.”  She paused and regarded the square.

The merchant Arlen was unloading his wares across the way, two or three of the men who came in with him watching her surreptitiously.

Her nape hairs were prickling.  She turned to Corman and studied him. “So you found them tied out with no one around.” She studied the boy, who was, she figured, just this side of being a boy with his sparse chin hair and his lanky, not quite grown frame. “Before or after you joined up with Arlen?”

He hesitated.

“Better for you if you don’t lie to me.” Xena advised him, in a mild tone.

“Before.” He said.

“How’d you get here?” She followed up.  “Come in by ship?”” She watched his eyes flick around, tension twitching the skin around them.  “You’re not from here.” She stated mildly.  “Runaway slave?”

He stared at her, breathing a little hard. “No.”

“I don’t care.” Xena’s lips quirked.  “This ain’t the capital. We’re the back end of Thrace, here.” She looked up and then pointed. “See that guy there? He came from an indentured whorehouse near the dockyards of Athens.”

Corman looked, then looked back at her, his shoulders relaxing a little.  “Came on a boat, yeah. My ma and I, but it turned over in a storm.” He said. “We swam ashore, got picked up by a some guys.” He glanced at Xena, to find her watching him intently.  “Fighters. Soldiers. I don’t know. They raped her.”

“Sorry to hear that.” Xena said, quietly.

His face twisted a little, a bitter tensing that made him seem older. “They taught me to fight.” He stared off into the distance. “So I do know how.” He looked quickly back at her. “Had a chance to run and I did, see? Then I found those horses and figured, maybe it’s a payback.”

Xena folded her arms over her chest. “If you found those horses just short of the pass, chances were they were coming here anyway.” She said. “No other town in the area does much with them.” She leaned against one of the stall posts, aware of the Amazons settling in across the path.  “Question is, who?”

He shrugged. “Does it matter? They weren’t there. Left these poor things alone, hungry.” He restated his claim. “Found them, they’re mine.”

In a sense, that was true.  Xena could imagine her doing the same, if she’d found the animals left out, but she also knew that whoever had transported them from their faraway home and gotten them this close to Amphipolis was probably known to her.

Or, at least she was known to them.

From the corner of her eye she watched as two of the militia led the three remaining horses over towards the fenced off area they’d set up for the traveler’s beasts, their delicate faces and compact bodies standing out vividly against the rough coats and ordinary outlines of the some dozen animals already inside the paddock.

She turned and regarded Corman. “Tell you what.”  She said. “Those are worth about a hundred dinars apiece.”

His eyes widened a little, confirming her suspicions. 

“I’ll give you that for them.” She said. “And you take off out of here. I don’t want you around.”

He drew in a breath. “Now you wait a minute! You can’t..

“I can.” Xena moved abruptly, reaching out and picking the kid up by his shirt and lifting him, shoving him back against the post and holding him there. “Take it and leave, because I don’t believe you looked for whoever brought those animals for a minute.”  She waited as he struggled a little, then she let him drop.  “I have a problem with that.”

He jerked his shirt straight. “You do!”

“I do.” Xena said. “We’re gonna go find out if they’re still around. So you better take your money and run, kid, because if I’m right you won’t have that option.”

“I found them!” Corman balled his fists.  “I’m not lying. I saved the beasts, and I’ll leave all right and take them with me.”

No you won’t.” Xena said. “You can either leave with the coin, or...” 

“Or?”

“Or stick around and if I’m wrong, you tell me your price and I’ll pay it.”  She pushed off the post and walked away from him, unwrapping her shirt and shaking it out as she approached the Amazon’s booth.  “Mind if I borrow a bit of your roof?”

Posi grinned at her. “No problem.”  She was sorting out some silver necklaces. “Who’s the kid?”

“A kid.” Xena arranged her shirt to dry, watching Corman from her peripheral vision, as the kid in question watched her, glaring at her back.  “Keep your eye on him.”

“I am.” The Amazon said. “He the one who took a swing at you down the river?”

“Yep.”

“Looks like he wants to again.”

“Yep.”

“He’s sure not from around here.”

“Nope.”

**

Gabrielle was sprawled on the couch in their cabin, with a wineskin resting on her thigh.  She cocked her head a bit and listened, hearing the faint sound of boots against earth in a well known to her rhythm.  She kept her eyes on the doorway until it opened, and Xena’s tall figure sauntered inside.

She had a carrysack over one shoulder, and it was full.  A smile appeared on her face as she spotted her partner, and she dumped the sack on the table and came over to give her a kiss. “Hey.”

“Hey.” Gabrielle offered her the wineskin. 

“Thanks.” Xena took a sip and handed it back. “Want to take a swim before we get ready for the party?”

“I want to tell you what my Amazons asked me before we get ready for the party.”  Gabrielle crossed her bare feet and regarded her partner. “Cause I have a problem.”

“Uh oh.” Xena straightened and went to the table, starting to unload the contents of the bag.  “Now what? I thought everything was cool down there?” 

Xena, they want to offer up a sacrifice to Ares.”

Xena paused in mid motion, her brows contracting. “What?”

Somewhat pleased with the reaction,  Gabrielle exhaled. “A sacrifice to Ares, tonight.” She clarified. “For the new juniors.”

Her partner put her bag down and turned, folding her arms over her chest. “What kind of sacrifice are we talking about here?”

“Exactly what I asked.”  Gabrielle propped her head up on one fist. “I thought maybe we were talking about a goat or something.  But no.” She said. “They want to put a damn virgin on the altar.”

Her partner came around the couch and sat down in the chair facing Gabrielle. “A virgin?”

“A virgin!!!!”

Xena unfolded her arms and spread them out. “And?”

“And?????”

Xena shrugged a little. “What are you worried about hon, you don’t qualify anymore.”

Gabrielle smacked her head with one hand and covered her eyes with it. “Xena.” She moaned.

“Well, you don’t.” Xena came over and sat down next to her.

Xena.” The bard let her hand drop and she gave her partner a look of sweet exasperation.  “It’s really not funny.”

Actually it’s damn hilarious.” Xena disagreed. “C’mon I assume you mean they want to have sex on the altar, right? Not that someone’s thinking of cutting a throat on it.”

“Yes.” Gabrielle nodded.  “I think they know me well enough by now not to suggest that other thing.”

Xena regarded her in a moment of pensive speculation. “We should do it.”

“XENA!!!!”

Xena started laughing silently, her entire body shaking with it. She folded her arms over her chest again and laughed all the harder while Gabrielle pummeled her leg with her bare feet.  

Xe, c’mon. “

Xena let the chuckles wind down. “So did they get a volunteer?” She asked, her eyes twinkling a little bit. “That’s the deal, y’now.  Someone wants to get their cherry popped in his honor.”

Gabrielle gave her a wry look. “To be honest I didn’t ask. I was too worried they were going to ask either one of us to do the honors.”

Xena reached over and cupped her hand around Gabrielle’s calf, rubbing it with the edge of her thumb. “They would not do that.” She stated, in a calm but certain tone.  “They know better.”

They did.  Gabrielle regarded Xena’s angular profile with quiet affection. “True.” She said. “So what do you think? Is it really okay?” She grimaced a little. “With everyone there watching? Yuk, Xe.”

“Ah.”  Her partner gave her leg a little squeeze.  “It’s traditional.” She acknowledged. “Long as the kid who volunteers is up for it I don’t see a problem.”

Gabrielle grimaced again.

“You don’t have to watch.” Xena’s eyes twinkled again. “You and I can duck into Aphrodite’s place while it’s going on.” She got up.  “Time to change for the party.”  She walked over to the clothes press near the wall and opened it. “That market down the hill isn’t bad.”

Gabrielle got up and was nosing through the contents of the bag. “Oh these toys are cute.” She examined the rope ball and wooden puzzles. “Are they for the girls or for you?”

Xena laughed softly, as she removed her shirt, and draped it over the door to the press and headed for the washroom. “C’mon.”  She entered the room and unstopped the stopper, letting her fingers drop into the flood of water as it came in from the stream outside.

Cold.   She lifted herself up and over into the tub and stretched herself out, extending her legs as the bath filled and chilled her skin.   Cold but not freezing and it felt good as she scrubbed her skin with the herbal soap made in her mother’s kitchen.

Gabrielle came in with a pair of freshly dried linen towels and draped them over the counter as she joined Xena in the tub. “Brr.”

Xena tossed her a sponge, and reached over to stop the ingress of the water.  Hey it beats some places we’ve taken a bath.” She flexed her toes. “Remember that..

“Mountain lake, near the border? Yes.”  Gabrielle smiled in reflex.  “But we were so covered in that stinking mud we didn’t care.”  She remembered that chill, her body shivering so hard she couldn’t hold the soap almost and then retreating back to the fire with her skin a definite blue tint.

Warmed furs laid over her shoulders in a moment of ethereal relief and then sharing a cup of hot, honey laced mint tea, passing it back and forth between them as Xena patiently cleaned her armor, remarkable mostly because it had become so unremarkable.

Their friendship had become such an accepted thing to the both of them.

“We didn’t care.” Xena agreed. “Hey, let me tell you what happened down in the market.” She picked up the rinse bowl and dipped the water into it, spilling it over her head.

Gabrielle smiled. “Remind me to trim your bangs.” She felt the discord of her talk with Aalene dissolving as she watched Xena twist her hair back and then spread her long arms along the edge of the bath, muscles moving under the skin already taking on a bit of bronze from the spring sun.  So what happened? More vendors?”

“Some guys showed up with a couple wagons and four horses.” Xena said. “Desert horses.” She added, after a pause.

“Really? Like the one Iolaus ended up with?”

Xena nodded. “Kid that had them said he found them tie up just on the other side of the pass.”

Gabrielle’s brows lifted sharply.   “Just like that?  Didn’t you say those animals were really valuable?”

“I did.” Xena’s thumbs tapped on the sides of the tub in a rhythm. “Well.. I mean to me they are.” She smiled in self-knowledge as she saw the humorous glint in the eyes facing her.  “But they’re a good bloodline. You can see it, and fast as Hades. I took a ride on one.”

“The horse Iolaus had was really pretty.” Gabrielle conceded. “I loved her long eyelashes.”

Xena took a breath, then paused and regarded her with a quizzical expression.

“They reminded me of yours.”

“Thanks.” Xena’s lips twitched into a wry grin. “I think.”

Gabrielle chuckled.  Then she rinsed her hair off, and slid down in the tub until she was floating, rocking her head back and forth to loosen up her neck muscles. “Did he ever name her?”

“No idea. By the way, that kid’s not from around here.” Her partner concluded, standing up and letting the water sheet off her, before she vaulted out of it and picked up one of the towels. “I think he’s from way north.” She handed Gabrielle the other towel as her partner climbed out of the tub.

Gabrielle dried her ears. “Way north?”  She eyed her.  “As in someplace we’ve been?” She leaned over and opened the drain on the tub.

Xena took the towel and gently ruffled Gabrielle’s hair with it. “Further. Past Britannia.” She leaned over and kissed her.  “But that direction, yeah. He said he was kidnapped and brought over as a slave.” She shrugged. “Something doesn’t really click with his story.”

Gabrielle returned the kiss and put her arms around Xena in a gentle hug. “Let me talk to him.”

“Was hoping you’d say that.”  Xena picked up a brush and ran it through her hair, slicking it back off her forehead and working out the tangles.  “I offered to pay him off if he’d leave.”

“Hm.” Gabrielle took the brush next and ordered her shorter hair with a few quick strokes.  “Did he take the offer?”

“No.”

“Interesting.”

They moved back into the main part of the cabin and went to the cabinet, which Xena had left propped open.  Gabrielle lifted out her ceremonial Amazon garb, and set it down.  “Those tokens we made were veeeerrrryyy popular by the way.”

Xena smiled. “Figured they would be.” She finished adjusting her under wraps and slid her leathers on.  “Is Pony doing the junior trials?”

“She is.” Gabrielle fastened the belt on her tanned hide skirt. “Though honestly I think they’d rather you did it.”

Xena looked up from tightening the laces that held the carved and crafted armor to her body. “Me? Why?” She had an honestly curious tone in her voice.

“Because you’re you.” Gabrielle turned and regarded the tall figure standing next to her, head cocked in some surprise. The leathers she was currently wearing were dyed a jet, inky black, and the surface had designs patterned in it, more decorative than functional.

Beautiful though, gifted to her by one of the militia who was also a leathercrafter, who in fact was selling his wares down in the market and doing well even now so early in the festival.  She made a mental note to do a little shopping herself there.

“Because I’m me.” Xena mused, shaking her head a little. “Boy, have we come a long way with these Amazons.”

Gabrielle produced a wry chuckle. “That is true.” She finished donning her garb and started on the cuffs and bracers that went with it, as Xena started putting on her armor.  “You think I can get away with not wearing that damn mask?”

“You’re the queen.” Xena sat down to put on her leg armor, adjusting the layer of soft leather underlays and fastening them.  “I wouldn’t wear it. How in the Hades are you supposed to fight with that on your head? You can’t see a damn thing.”

“Good point.”  Gabrielle donned the gold and silver hammered tokens of her rank. “I’ll say the puppies chewed it up.”  She decided, smiling as she heard the snicker. “Hey it’s a legit possibility.”

Xena stood up and went to her arming chest, opening it up and removing her sword in it’s sheath and attaching it to the fasteners on her back, putting her hand on the hilt to check the angle before going back and adding daggers to her boots and one to the small of her back.

“What does it say about the Amazons that they wear more weapons to party than to fight?” Gabrielle observed, watching her.

“I’m not an Amazon.”

Gabrielle chuckled and reached into the press to retrieve her one blade, adding it at her hip and sliding it a little so it sat where she could draw it.  Not that she expected to have to, but you never knew, did you?  She didn’t wear it in the village or town anymore but a little bit of her took comfort from having it there.

Just as she would having her staff in her hand, not the practice stave she left in her quarters in the village, but the longer, darker, more hardened one that was in the corner nearby, newly wrapped with leather hand holds, covered in the dents and marks of actual battle.

Marks of her standing up to the task of the fighter part of the title she held.  

“Maybe you should do the testing.” Xena observed, as though reading her thoughts.

Gabrielle finished adjusting the wrist protectors, leather with the mark of the tribe carved into them while she thought about that, glancing up to study Xena’s now fully armored form leaning casually against the wall.  “No.” She finally said. “If someone was going to take that honor from Pony, it should be someone who is so much the warrior of warriors that it won’t be an insult to her.”

Xena cocked her head to one side thoughtfully. “Hm.”

“And we both know who that means in this partnership, partner.” Gabrielle smiled. “But I’m fine with her doing it. We did our part with the tokens.”  She went over and took her cloak down from it’s peg on the wall. “I have nothing else to prove to these folks.”

Xena went over and held the door open, gesturing with a flourish as she waited for Gabrielle to pass through ahead of her, and followed, closing the door behind them.

“Where is your cloak?” Gabrielle asked suddenly.  “We’re going to be out all night.”

Xena cleared her throat. “Down at the barracks, drying.”

“Drying?”

“Look, a robin.” Xena pointed. “First one I’ve seen.”

Gabrielle spared a glance for the colorful bird. “Drying?” She repeated.  “What part of this story am I missing?”

Xena smiled charmingly at her.

“Oh boy.”

**

The sun was starting to send golden rays through the branches as they reached the plateau ridge the Amazon village was built into, stepping away from the path that continued on down to the town gates and across the flat pounded earth.

The gates were open, and four guards were there, already dressed in leathers and finery a mix of jewelry and tokens and as they spotted their leaders a whistle went up, echoing against the hillside. 

Gabrielle lifted her staff in acknowledgment.  “Hey folks.”

“Your majesty.” Solari saluted, with Mara next to her.  “Now we can start the party.”

Dosi and Jessa, the two other guards grinned, and went to the edges of the gates, waiting for Xena and Gabrielle to clear them and then pushing them closed.

A drum started, in the center of the open space past the cooking pit, and a moment later another joined it, a counterpointed rhythm that came on the breeze along with the scent of roasting meat and the laughter of children.

The tribe was gathering around the outdoor space, a big cookpit with a platform built in front of it, and around it seating areas on various levels covered in colorful woven cloth with pillows scattered around.

On one side, several warriors with harps and sitars were clustered, tuning up with the drummers sitting on the edge of their platform tapping away.

On the far side, set a bit apart, was a level area with comfortable looking fur covered seats on it, and as Gabrielle watched,  Ares the wolf trotted up and jumped onto it, finding a place on one of the bear skins and laying down. “I guess that’s our spot.” She remarked. “How does he know though?”

Xena chuckled. “Here come the kids.”  She indicated a rush of small, running figures. “Hey look at those outfits.”

The children, coming from the direction of the gathering hall were all in Amazon leathers, small versions of what the rest of the tribe was wearing.   “Mama!” Dori spotted them and headed over.  “Mama look!”

Gabrielle slowed to a halt and wrapped her hand around her staff as her daughter raced towards her.  “That’s a surprise.”

“You mad?” Solari asked, hesitantly. 

Was she?

Dori’s little outfit was slightly more ornate than the others, and Gabrielle saw a leather and stone version of her own rank token bouncing as she ran.  She handed her staff off and knelt, opening her arms as Dori bounded into to them. “Hey Dor! What do you have on!?”

Dori patted the leather. “See? Like Mama do!” She pointed at her mother’s outfit. “We all got! For the party!” She turned and waved Cari over.  “Show mama!”

Cari joined them, obviously happy with her new clothes.  Her set were a soft fawn color, a top with fringe decorated with small river stones and a small skirt that went to her knees with a tooled belt and new boots. “Good!”

Dori’s were similar, but her leather belt had a pattern carved into it, repeating hawk’s heads and the leather was dyed a dark burgundy red. “Mama like?” Dori asked, watching her mother’s face intently.

Gabrielle straightened out the token. “I love it, Dor.” She reassured her child.  “You guys look adorable!” She ruffled Dori’s hair. “That’s so nice they gave you these new clothes, isn’t it?”

“Yes.” Dori looked up and to her right. “You like, Boo?”

“Gorgeous.” Xena replied. “Let’s go get some cookies.” She handed Gabrielle back her staff as the bard rose and the two children turned and headed back to the cookpit, where trays were appearing. “Rank token’s interesting.”

“Mm.”  Gabrielle shifted her staff to her other hand and hooked her arm through her partner’s as they walked across the festival grounds and headed for their spot.  “You see the belt?”

“I did.”

“Mixed message.”

“Yeah.” Xena lifted her free hand to return the greetings they were getting. “Interesting.” She responded. “Let’s see if that’s in a good way or bad.”

**

Continued in Part 3