Change in Seasons
Xena extended her legs and rested her elbows on the chair arms, listening to the music in some contentment. Some, because the meal had actually been edible and everyone seemed to be having fun, but acknowledging a bit of boredom.
She was tired a bit of the repetitive dances, finding no seduction in the moving bodies, idly wishing they would move on to the next bit of pageantry and the hike up the hill which at least would provide her some exercise.
Having Gabrielle tell a story would have been more interesting, really, or having the musical group from the town up to play something a little less drums and more sitar.
Gabrielle was leaning forward in her own seat and talking to Solari, and next to her on the bearskin rug Dori and Cari were taking a nap, curled up with Ares and their two puppies in a pile of leather and paws, ignoring the party around them.
Ah well. She eyed them with a touch of envy.
She picked up her cup of cider and sipped from it, watching the small group of Amazons who were starting to gather on the opposite side of the cookpit. Cait was there, with Paladia standing nearby, her arms folded over her chest and her height towering over most of the others.
She looked over and saw Xena watching and rolled her eyes, when the warrior grinned at her, reflecting on how long a way the ex renegade had come in the past few years.
How long all of them had come, that she could sit here on the queen’s platform and chill, completely at home in this community who had once hated her and now accepted her presence with benign pleasure, viewing her as the benefactor who had gifted them their new valley, and their queen’s beloved consort.
A little away from them, seated in the circle were the girls who would be moved into the junior warrior cadre, all of them in their first set of full leathers, looking like they were halfway between excited and scared, waiting their turn and watching their leaders with furtive looks and grins.
It was all normal and relaxed and so to Xena’s eyes a bit surreal. She caught the eye of one of the servers and motioned her over, spotting some little pastries she figured both her and Gabrielle might like.
The server trotted over, smiling as she extended the wooden tray she was holding. “They’re good.” She advised Xena. “Everything was tonight, really.”
“It was. Thanks.” Xena took several of the pastries and put them down on the small table next to her seat. Then she picked one up and stood, carefully negotiating the crowded rug as she went to Gabrielle’s side and knelt and extended her hand out. “My queen.”
Gabrielle, predictably, stopped in mid word and blushed a little, a line of color etching her cheekbones just visible in the firelight. “What did I do?”
“Nothing.” Xena handed her the pastry. “We going to get this party started now?”
“Bored?” Gabrielle gave her a knowing look of affection. “Why don’t you take a nap with the girls?”
“I’d rather take a nap with you.” Xena responded with a frank grin. “So lets get this moving huh?”
Solari chuckled. “You want to do the joining or the elevation first, your maj?”
“Kids first.” Gabrielle finished her pastry, dusting her fingers off. “Then they can start taking them up to the altars while we do the joinings.” She stood up and looked around, then waved at Pony and Ephiny, who had seen her get up and were doing the same.
Everyone noticed. The sudden energy was noticeable and as Solari crossed over to the group of girls they got up and started preparing themselves.
“Here we go.” Ephiny stepped up onto their level and came over to Gabrielle. “Nice timing. Those kids are about to piss themselves.”
“They are. They’re excited.” Pony shifted her cloak off her shoulders and exposed her sword in it’s sheath, flexing her hands a little bit. “I heard they were going to get a special initiation up the hill.”
‘Yeah, that’s what I hear everyone wants.” Gabrielle remarked dryly. “I gotta say, I think I know too much not to be skeptical of that idea.”
“She wouldn’t let us volunteer.” Xena said, in a mock mournful tone.
“Xena.” Gabrielle gave her a slap on the stomach. “Stop that!”
“Aint enough room in that altar for that show.” Ephiny snickered. “Besides, it took them a month to find a vic.. I mean volunteer don’t let them waste all that work.”
“Who is it?” Gabrielle asked.
“Talah.” Ephiny responded. “I think she figures it’ll make her mark.” She spoke frankly. “Given it’s our first time with this, maybe it will.”
Pony nodded. “She’s got an attitude.”
“Rare.” Xena drawled. “Among all the wallflowers around here.”
Ephiny chuckled. “Here they come.” She took up a position on one corner of the platform while Eponin, as their weapon’s master, took the other.
Gabrielle took a step to the center and Xena settled into position behind her right shoulder, her armor catching glints of light from the fire.
“Halt.” Ephiny barked out, staring at the group of girls who now did just that, petering to a halt in front of the platform.
Behind them, the rest of the tribe gathered, a shifting group of figures with an edgy energy exuding from them.
“Who approaches the queen!?” Eponin countered. “And for what purpose?”
Ary, the teacher came forward, and knelt. “Your majesty.” She said. “I bring to you six, who wish to become Amazons, and serve under you.”
Knowing her part reasonably well, Gabrielle came forward and reached out with her staff to tap Ary on the shoulder. “Rise.” She intoned. “Have you taught these six well? Do they know our ways and our laws?”
Probably better than she did. The bard’s eyes twinkled a little bit. But she’d read up on the ceremony again, refreshing her memory just that morning and she had her lines down pat.
She talked a good game. Amazons loved a good show, and in the pageantry department she without question had more skill than most in the tribe’s history so she put some energy into it, thunking her staff into place and giving Ary a stern look.
“Your majesty, they do.” Ary agreed. “They are prepared to join us as junior warriors and become a full part of the tribe.” Drums started up behind them, a gentle, insistent rhythm.
Xena tapped her fingers against her thigh in the same rhythm, pausing to glare at the juniors.
“Have them come forward.” Gabrielle grounded her staff, and leaned on it a little, glancing back as Xena eased up behind her and rested her wrist casually on her shoulder, the breeze bringing a brief hint of the musky scent of leather and the faintest hint of the soap they’d bathed with to her.
The six girls came forward and to the thump of the drums they knelt before Gabrielle, visibly shaking a little, their eyes fastened on their queen.
With a roll, the drums stopped, and now the sound of the fire was loudest, snapping in the background, bathing them with warmth and light.
“Mark them.” Gabrielle said, into the silence. “With the signs of the tribe, so that any who meet them shall know they are our sisters.”
Eponin came forward, the tokens Gabrielle had made draped over her right arm. She moved from girl to girl, fastening them to the shoulder straps of their leathers.
“Nice job.” Xena whispered. “They came out good.”
Gabrielle smiled in response.
“You should make me one.”
Gabrielle turned her head and gave her a droll look. “How about I braid you one from Argos tail hair?”
“I’m pretty sure you already did that.”
The bard chuckled silently.
“Your majesty, they are marked.” Pony concluded, turning and touching her fist to her chest. “Marked with tokens from your own hand.” She added, projecting her voice a bit so everyone could hear her and as one, the juniors looked at their own shoulders, then back up.
Gabrielle heard the soft murmur rise, and she could see people craning their necks to get a look at the baubles. “True.” She said. “I added stones from our lands here, leather from the animals that marked our first wintering, and feathers… “ She glanced to one side. “Feathers my consort gathered from the mountainside we call our own.”
Definite whispers now, and the kids were fingering their new adornments with happy smiles.
Nice. Gabrielle cleared her throat. “Now come forward one at a time, to take your oath.”
Talah stood up and came forward eagerly, extending her hands.
Gabrielle gave her staff to Xena and took them, palm to palm. The girl was tall and willowy, her slight figure in it’s dark leather an odd contrast to her queen’s pale features and confident muscularity. “Talah, do you want to join this tribe, and be a sister to me, and to all who watch here?”
“I do.” The girl answered confidently, not without a flickering glance at the tall and silent figure at Gabrielle’s shoulder.
“Do you pledge your heart and blood to the tribe, to defend and fight for us, in dark times and light?” Gabrielle continued.
“Yes.” Talah almost whispered. “I promise.”
“In return, we will be your sisters, we will support you, and teach you, and give you a home and hearth for as long as you live.” The queen concluded. “So, Tarah, pass the trials, and become one of us.” She leaned forward and gave the girl and kiss on the head, and felt her hands squeezed in a trembling grip.
Then she released her. “Eponin. Weapons master of this tribe, make her an Amazon.” Gabrielle stepped back and got out of the way, as Pony stepped in next to her and faced the girl, not without a wink and a poke at Xena’s shoulder.
Xena folded her arms over her chest and endeavored to look stern. Which given her height and the dark leathers she was wearing wasn’t really hard. She handed Gabrielle back her staff and they stood shoulder to shoulder to watch the show.
Pony flexed her hands. “Choose your weapon.”
This was always a bit dicey. Xena felt Gabrielle lean against her, then they both turned as they heard sound from behind them to see two pairs of bright eyes now watching them and getting up to come over. “Uh oh.” The bard glanced back at the trial.
“I got it.” Xena intercepted Dori and Cari, picking them both up and cradling them in her arms. “Shhh.” She brought them back over to the edge of the platform so they could see. “Be quiet, okay?”
Cari blinked sleepily. “Psht.”
“Okay.” Dori put her arm around Xena’s neck. “What they do, Boo?”
“To get to be big shots.” Xena whispered. “They have to fight Pony.”
Dori looked at her, then looked at Pony, then back at her. “How come?”
“Boo why she make a fight with PooPoo?” Dori asked. “She’s gonna get in trouble!”
“Shh.” Xena hissed. “You kids gotta be quiet or I’m taking you back up to bed and you’ll miss the party.”
“Pst.” Cari reached over and put her fingers against Dori’s lips. “Be good.”
Dori produced as skeptical an expression as a six year old could but she settled down against Xena’s neck as the two puppies wandered over and sat down on the warrior’s boots.
Gabrielle folded her arms over her chest. “You’re so lucky Paladia’s too busy to sketch tonight, hon.”
“Hmpft.” Xena made a small noise.
“I choose my hands.” Tarah said, and then Pony joined her on the level below the platform and they circled each other as the rest of the tribe clustered around. After a brief pause, Tarah jumped forward and they grappled.
It wasn’t really serious, but the four remaining girls watched avidly. Hand to hand was always a safe choice because it was very hard to get hurt doing it like this.
Pony was bigger, and she was stronger, and she wasn’t really out to hurt the kid so she went along with the grapple and in moment they were on the ground.
“On second thought I’m glad you aren’t doing this.” Gabrielle commented under her breath. “You might have hurt yourself trying not to hurt her.”
Xena chuckled softly.
“Is this a time to ask why we do this?” The bard continued in a mutter. “I mean really Xe.”
“Well.” Xena watched the two figures rolling around on the ground. “I fought for you to hold your right. It really is a part of being an Amazon.”
Xena had. Gabrielle well remembered that day. She watched Pony gently flip Tarah onto her back and straddle her, tipping her chin back with her fist as the girl lifted her hands up in surrender.
“One down.” Xena stated.
“One down.” Gabrielle agreed, as she walked forward and jumped off the platform to give Tarah a hand up. “Welcome to the tribe.” She told the girl. “I think Aalene’s over there with some wine, g’wan.”
Tarah was a little flushed, but produced a happy smile for her queen and trotted off.
“Approach, who is next to meet the challenge.” Ephiny intoned solemnly. “There is a party waiting to be started.”
Dori leaned closer. “Boo, this is dumb.” She whispered into her parent’s slightly twitching ear.
Xena suppressed a smile. “Shh.”
“We should just go swimming.”
The final girl fell to Pony’s superior skills and Ary came over and took charge of them again, shepherding them over to the rest of the juniors who were waiting to greet them, gathering around the group and passing them mugs.
The drums were now beating more strongly, and the two sets of Amazons who were being joined were coming forward, as Xena handed her partner a mug of cider.
“Thank you honey.” Gabrielle half drained it. “Ready for this?”
Dori had given up on the festivities, and she and Cari were sitting together on the back of the platform, playing with a pair of sticks, flipping them over and over while the puppies watched solemnly. Ares remained on the rug, head down on his paws, nose twitching faintly.
“Am I ready?” Xena dusted her hands off. “I wasn’t ready for MY joining much less anyone else’s.” She paused. “Let me go grab the presents.” She added. “Be right back.”
Gabrielle twitched her cloak on a little straighter, and realized suddenly that no one had even asked her about the mask. She walked over to where Ephiny and Pony were standing and joined them. “Hey.”
“Hey.” Ephiny responded. “That went pretty well, I thought.”
“Me too.” Her queen agreed. “Hey let me ask you though, what’s the view on leaving out the masks?”
Ephiny carefully looked around and then back at her. “Oh, your majesty.” She burred. “I gotta tell you, that was the one change you made that got unanimous approval by every single person in this tribe. Me included. “
“You specially.” Pony remarked dryly. “Don’t give me that look I know what you used to call that thing.”
“Yes!” Gabrielle pumped her fist. “Someday someone will tell me the story of why the Hades Amazons wore those things anyway. They’re gross.”
“No one knows.” Ephiny said. “Make one up?” She suggested. “If there ever was a Queen of the Amazons who could it’s you.”
“That’s for sure.” Pony agreed. “Make it really cool, like we started off with wings or something, huh?”
Gabrielle laughed, and covered her eyes with one hand.
“Hey we’ve all heard that one about Xena with a tail.”
Gabrielle sat in her elevated seat, watching the party proceeding beneath her. She pulled her cloak around her a bit more as the air grew cooler and crossed her booted feet at the ankles as she sipped a mug of mulled wine.
To one side, she could see the two couples she’d joined standing, accepting the congratulations of the tribe, both Cait and Paladia wearing brand new cloaks themselves that she and Xena gifted them.
Beautifully tanned leather, hooded, dyed a deep green and lined at the collar with dark fur and hammered bronze catches, and with matching silver wristlets shaped like twined lizards that Xena had made.
The other couple had gotten gifts as well, from their family of course, but as she watched one of the elders reached out to touch the edge of Cait’s cloak and said something that made Cait look over at Gabrielle and smile.
Gabrielle smiled back. It was nice to be in a place where they could take the time and effort to be generous to their friends and family. She held out her cup as the wine bearer came around and the woman dipped her spout down from the skin and filled it. “Thank you.”
“Your majesty.” The woman waggled the spout at her. “Shall I fill your consorts?”
Gabrielle glanced to her left. “Sure.” She could feel Xena’s presence approaching. “She just went to go take the kids to the gathering hall.”
The woman filled Xena’s cup and moved on, as Gabrielle resettled herself and pondered on what story to tell when she herself went to the hall in due course.
First the kids would have some treats, and everyone would get a few gifts, and then around the central fire pit in the hall they would hear stories, first from their minders, then from a few of the elders and then, at the last, from their queen who for a change would be present for the festival and was now a far more central part of their lives.
A lot had changed. Gabrielle pondered that thoughtfully. For all of them.
Xena approached, coming across the front of the big fire pit and loping up the platforms with a bouncy stride until she arrived at Gabrielle’s level and sat back down in her seat. “Those kids are never going to go to sleep tonight.”
Gabrielle chuckled “Should I tell them the one about the hundred barrels of beer? Bet that’ll do it.”
Xena extended her long legs out and crossed her boots as she sipped her wine. “No. That one puts me to sleep and we’ve got a long night yet ahead of us.” She regarded the crowd. “Party’s getting pretty raucous down the hill. Benny came up and said they’re going to close the town gate overnight.”
“Really?” Gabrielle eyed her. “That doesn’t sound good.”
Xena shrugged. “Might just be Benny being cautious.” She allowed. “Another merchant train came in while we were up here and the market’s full.” She cradled her cup in her hands. “Your family got here right after sundown.”
Gabrielle jerked in faint surprise. “Huh?” She said. “Really didn’t expect them to turn up.”
Her partner nodded. “Mom has them up by her.” She said. “Want me to run down and invite your sister up for the altar visit?”
Gabrielle turned her head and regarded Xena thoughtfully. “Think she’d be up for it?” She asked. “Is Gabriel with them?”
“Let me go down and see them.” Gabrielle got up and put her cup down, moving behind Xena and giving her a brief kiss on the top of her head. “Glad they brought your cloak up.” She said. “I still want to know how you got it wet.”
You could hear the drums all the way down the slope. Gabrielle walked in their rhythm as she traveled over the neatly lined path and reached the bottom with a little hop. She passed through the cluster of trees and into the open space before the back gates, slightly surprised to find them shut.
The guard spotted her, though, and went to swing them open as she approached and went from the faint shadows into the torchlight. “Ay, Gabrielle.” One greeted her.
“What’s with the gates?” She asked, pausing just on the town side of them.
“Cap’ns orders.” The guard responded promptly. “Says he didn’t want no one wandering up unexpected like.”
“For our sake or theirs?” Gabrielle’s eyes twinkled a little.
The guard grinned back at her. “Can hear them drums here.” He noted, indicating the path upwards. “Figured as some might be curious.”
Reasonable. “Got it.” Gabrielle continued on into the town, down the packed dirt path through the neat huts and cabins on either side, up towards the inn at the front overlooking the slope down to the river. She could hear music drifting up from the market square and the smell of roasting, and whistles and laughs and it all made her smile.
She turned to her right where the road split, and up the narrower way that led between the small paddock and barn that belonged to the inn and the two cabins to one side of it, and past that the back door to the inn itself.
All part of her history here. She climbed up the steps to the kitchen door and opened it, getting a gust of venison stew laden air as she entered.
The cooks turned and waved, but kept up their stirring as she waved back and went through the door to the main part of the inn, leaving her staff in one corner before she passed through.
The room was very crowded, voices raised in a low buzz as she paused, then went to the family table where she spotted Cyrene seated with her mother and sister.
She drew attention as she entered, and knew it. Her Amazon ceremonial garb made her stand out even to those who had been to the market and seen their stall there, and knew the tribe was in the area. She felt the eyes on her and moved a little faster before anyone decided to do anything about it.
It was too late in the day for a scene, and nothing would end good with one and there were militia in the room who would be happy to make one on her behalf.
“Gabrielle!” Her mother and sister had both stood to greet her and she got the rest of the room behind her as she returned their hugs.
“Hey guys! The watch came up to tell us you were here.” Gabrielle took a seat at the table.
“Tecdus has a stall down in the market.” Hecuba said. “Lennat was just here, he’s putting Gabriel to bed.” She added, noting her elder daughter’s quick look around. “What a festival!”
Cyrene nodded with satisfaction. “Been a bad winter. Everyone’s glad of a break in the weather.” She suggested. “I was just saying it wasn’t a bad thing though for putting a chill on the war.”
“We were really glad of that.” Lila agreed. “We saw that Spartan army go past, you know? But we all kept back in the rocklands, after you sent that warning sis.”
“What happened with that?” Hecuba asked. “We never heard.”
What had happened with that. “Long story.” Gabrielle admitted. “In the end, Xena kind of got over it and just sent them all home.”
It was a testament to her partner’s reputation that everyone at the table, including Cyrene and Johan merely nodded when she said that. As in, of course she had. Never mind the chase, and the tidal waves, and oh, right, going to Mount Olympus. “You know how it is with us.”
Lennat threaded his way back through the crowd. “Hey sis.” He greeted Gabrielle, who stood to give him a hug. He was tall, and blond and looked more like he was related to her than her actual sister Lila, who was dark like their mother. “Gabriel’s going to be so mad he went to bed before you came.”
“We can meet up tomorrow.” Gabrielle said. “I’ll bring Dori down and they can play with Toris’s two.” She half turned towards Lila. “His wife Granella’s up at the village for the Amazon spring festival. You want to come up and check it out?”
Lila looked intrigued. “They were telling me you were having some sort of party.” She acknowledged. ‘I don’t think I’ve ever seen your Amazon place.”
No, Gabrielle realized. She hadn’t. “C’mon.” She stood up. “Mom?”
“Oh no, it’s been such a long day.” Hecuba shook her head. “Perhaps tomorrow I might come see it.” Her voice lifted in slight question.
“Sure. But not early. It’s gonna be a late night” Gabrielle agreed. “Lets go out the back.” She suggested to Lila. “You have boots on? Yeah, good.” She led the way to the kitchen door and through it, holding it for her sister. “It’s a hike up.”
“That’s what Toris said.” Lila watched her reclaim her staff as they went out the back door and out into the night. “Boy this place is busy.” She added, as they dodged a group of travelers headed for the inn, who paused to watch them as they passed.
Two of the militia noticed and casually came past them towards the men, getting between the group and the two women. Gabrielle suppressed a smile, as she led her sister through the back lane towards the gates.
“Those guys were a little creepy.” Lila noted. “Are the big hunky soldiers Xena’s?”
Gabrielle chuckled. “They are.” She agreed. “All her army wears those leather overlays, with the hawk’s head on them.” She pointed at the ones near the path, who were leaning on long staffs of their own and waving casually at them.
“Do they all live here?” Lila asked curiously as they walked out of the torchlight and into the moonlit path leading upwards. “There are more of them since the last time we were here.”
“They do, we have barracks near the river.” Gabrielle explained. “But they all have day jobs. They’re farmers, or crafters, or hunters or whatever. Xena doesn’t let anyone just hang out.” She added. “They do turns at watch, and they get a stipend for it.”
“Huh.” Lila grunted thoughtfully. “Yeah that kind of makes sense. I mean, if you have an army, what do you do with it when you’re not fighting someone?” She was wearing a below knee length skirt and she lifted it a little as they walked.
“Exactly.” Her sister agreed. “And Xena does know what to do with one.” She smiled briefly. “Which is why she wanted to find something else for them to do.”
“So are you guys living here permanently now? That’s what Cyrene said.”
Gabrielle was briefly silent, then she shrugged slightly. “For now.” She conceded. “I kind of took over the Amazons when Ephiny was pregnant, and we both decided it was better for Dori to be here around other kids for a while.”
“And you adopted another kid?”
“We did. One of the tribe orphans, a good friend of Dori’s.” Gabrielle said. “Don’t get me wrong, Dori loved being out with us when we traveled, but you know, she missed her friends.”
Lila nodded. “I totally get it. I’m glad.” She eyed her sister. “For now, anyway, huh?”
Gabrielle smiled wryly. “That sound is from the village.” She changed the subject, indicating the drumming that was vibrating through the trees. “We had a graduation tonight, and two joinings.”
Lila walked along thoughtfully for a few minutes. “You know, I never really thought about what it was like in a place with all women.” She finally said. “There’s no men at all?”
“Nope.” Her sister said. “Except for any boys that are born to the tribe.” She corrected herself. “But they have to leave before they hit puberty. For obvious reasons.”
“Have to leave? Where do they go?”
“Depends.” Gabrielle said. “We have an agreement with the town that they foster any from our tribe, but in some others they find someone who’ll apprentice them.” She cleared her throat a little. “In general, not an issue. Everyone wants a son, right?” She gave her sister a sideways glance.
“I guess that’s true.” Lila smiled. “But you know, we’re trying for a girl.” She admitted. “Lennat wants one of each.”
The drumming grew louder, as they came up the last slope and approached the village entrance. The gates were still wide open, but the watch was there and saluted as Gabrielle came into the torchlight and was recognized.
She waved casually back. “Hey guys. This is my sister Lila.”
The watch came forward with eager curiosity. “Greetings.” Nala said. “Our queen’s family is always welcome.” The tall Amazon put a hand on her chest.
“Hello.” Lila responded. “Um, thanks!” She studied the two Amazons, both dressed in leathers and wearing cloaks as Gabrielle was. “Nice to meet you.”
“This is Nala, and Posi.” Gabrielle introduced the two. “Lila’s never been in the village before. My family’s staying down with Cyrene.”
“Then double welcome.” Posi agreed, her snub nose wrinkling as she grinned. “You picked a good time to visit. There’s a big old party going on in there.” She indicated the village.
“So I hear.” Lila watched as the two parted to admit them and they walked past the gates into the village.
There was plenty of light from the central fire, and the torches scattered around and Lila looked around in some surprise as they crossed the open space leading up to the plateau. “Wow.” She said. “It’s bigger than I thought – it’s bigger than Potadeia.”
Gabrielle nodded. “We took over this space after the big war. It’s filled out over the last year though, we were rattling around in it at first.” She pointed. “That’s where most of the people live, along that ridge there, and our kitchen and gathering places are on that side.”
“How many people live up here?”
“About a hundred now.” Her sister said. “Including sixteen kids. Was twenty, but we graduated four tonight.”
“What does that mean?” Lila asked.
“Coming of age.” Gabrielle said, succinctly. “You get to officially become an Amazon, go from being part of the kid’s group to a junior warrior.”
There was dancing going on, and Gabrielle glanced past the crowd as she sensed motion in the shadows to spot Xena coming towards them. “Ah, we’ve been seen.” She paused and waited, watching her soulmate approach and folding her hands over her staff.
Lila smiled as her sister’s tall partner arrived. “Hello, Xena.” She stepped forward for a brief hug. “How are you?”
“Fine, now that your sister is back and can go entertain the kids.” Xena stated. “They were trying to get me to tell a story to them.”
Gabrielle chuckled. “I wasn’t that long.” She protested. “Just for that I’m going to tell them Dori’s favorite.”
Xena’s eyes narrowed.
“Just kidding.” Gabrielle poked her in the ribs. “C’mon, Lila, help me tell a tale and then we can come back and have a mug of something.”
Lila just smiled, and followed along after her sister, giving Xena a little wave.
Instead of returning to the platform, Xena followed them, and they skirted the dancers as the drumming got a bit louder, walking along a track that was lined with river stones and skirted a row of tall trees that were rustling in the wind.
“We’re just so glad the winter’s over.” Lila said. “It was so hard. We had a dozen people die of the cold, and a lot of the animals too.”
“It was bad here too.” Gabrielle agreed.
“The elders thought we were cursed.” Lila said. “And we heard you all made some shrines. So they sent along some tributes for us to put there.”
Gabrielle glanced behind her to see her partner with a rueful expression. “We did.” She gestured towards the big gathering hall. “We have a shrine to Aphrodite and one to Ares, up on the cliff side.” She said. “In fact, we’re going to put some tributes there ourselves tonight.”
Xena cleared her throat.
“But it’s kind of a tough trip in the dark.” Gabrielle continued smoothly. “Most of the town is going up tomorrow I think.”
Lila nodded. “That would probably be better.” She admitted. “That was quite a hike up I’m not sure I want to do it again.”
They entered the gathering hall, and as Gabrielle was recognized the kids in a circle near the fire let out a clamor.
Dori was, predictably, the loudest. “Mama!” She stood and put her hands in the air, dancing around in a circle and moments later all the younger children joined her. “Mama’s here! Mama’s here!”
“All right, settle down you kiddos.” Gabrielle good naturedly joined the group as one of the minders moved aside and opened up a square stool for her.
“Oh my gosh Dori’s gotten so big!” Lila whispered to Xena. “I can’t believe it!” She studied her niece with a faintly shaking head. “By the gods she’s your image.”
Xena smiled. “The little red haired one next to her is Cari, our adopted.”
“She’s so cute!” Lila covered her mouth with one hand. “Heck all of them are.. look at those outfits.”
“C’mon over here, Lila.” Gabrielle waved her over. “Everyone, say hello to my sister Lila. Help me tell a story, Li.”
Lila put her hands on her hips. “When did you ever need any help doing that!”
The kids all laughed, and Xena gave her a prod. “G’wan.”
“You come too.” Lila gave Xena’s cloak a tug. “Then I have some questions about those shrines.” She added. “I heard some things on the road.”
Ah heh. Xena followed her over to the circle and took a seat, delighting the children who rushed over to climb on top of her splayed legs. She picked up Cari and put her in her lap, and settled back to listen, hoping she wouldn’t be hearing the words barn or cow.
Gabrielle sat back and took a sip of her newly delivered cider, clearing the rasp from her throat from the long story she’d just finished.
A new one they had heard for the first time, and which had Amazons and animals in it and fish, a light tale she’d thought up on the spot instead of dragging out one they’d heard before.
The kids were happy. “Mama.” Dori came over and patted her hands on Gabrielle’s knee. “That was goooooooood.” She warbled. “I never hear that one!”
“Did you like that, Doriboo? I made it all up just for you.” Gabrielle fondly combed the dark hair out of her daughter’s eyes. “I need to give you a haircut.”
Dori grinned at her and closed her eyes, blowing up a puff of air to move her bangs back. “I like the sheeps, mama. Can we get a sheep? He can be friends with Rusty.”
“No sheeps in my house.” Gabrielle informed her. “You can play with the sheep in their meadow.”
“Aw, mama! You made it so cute! Bababa!”
“Mm.” Gabrielle smiled. “Did you know your mama used to herd sheep when she was a little girl like you?” She told her. “I used to stay out in the dark taking care of them.”
Dori blinked at her. “You do, mama?”
“I did, so I got enough of sheep, okay? You can play with them but we’re not living with any.” Gabrielle put her fingertip on her daughter’s nose. “You have puppies.”
Dori scowled at her, but then laughed and patted her knees again. “Buppits are cuter.” She acknowledged.
Lila sat down next to her. “That was a nice one.” She complimented her sister. “So what happens now?”
“Now, the kids all go to their bunks.” Gabrielle leaned back on her hands, stretching her back out a little. “And we go up to the hill to the top of the ridge past where our cabin is, and climb down to the altars.”
“Mama, can we go with you?” Dori asked. “Cait said it was gonna be funnnn.”
“No.” Gabrielle informed her. “You are not old enough, my little one.” She said. “Someday, when you get to be a big shot like the girls did tonight, you can go.”
“Honestly, Dor. It’s not going to be fun for you. Just a lot of talking and mush.” Gabrielle’s eyes twinkled a little. “You stay here with Cari and your friends, and have some cookies.”
“Can Boo stay here too?”
“No.” Her mother shook her head. “Boo has to come with me for this.”
Dori’s lower lip poked out.
“C’mon. We won’t be gone that long, and you’re going to have a party here.” Gabrielle spotted motion behind the kids. “Look, here come the cookies. I bet your grandma made them.”
Dori turned and then Cari came over to take her hand and start tugging. “Okay.” Dori allowed herself to be distracted. “Bring me a rock, mama, okay?”
“I will.” Her mother exchanged a grin with Lila. “Kids.”
“She’s got her mother’s stubborn will.” Lila teased her, chuckling when Gabrielle stuck her tongue out at her. “Well, she does.”
“She does.” Gabrielle admitted. “She’s a good kid. She takes care of Cari and she doesn’t let the rest of them run over her.”
“Which she also gets from you.” Lila observed. “As I remember well from my own childhood.”
Gabrielle smiled briefly. “Also true, though I can remember many times being afraid, and having to force my way past that.” She looked over at Dori and shook her head a little. “She’s not afraid of anything and that - that she gets from Xe.”
Lila watched the children for a long moment. “And those cheekbones.”
Her sister chuckled. “Yeah.”
Lila nodded, then shrugged just a little. “That’s still really weird for me.” She admitted. “Mom too. She just pretends it was Toris.”
Gabrielle considered thoughtfully then turned and met her sister’s eyes. “Weird because Xe and I are both women, or weird because Xe ..” She paused and then made a small gesture with her hands. “For want of a better term fathered her?”
Lila took her time and thought about the question, paying no attention to the chattering kids, or the sounds of the village coming in through the meeting room door. “Huh.” She finally said. “Actually, that you’re both women I guess.” She said. “We think Xena’s capable of pretty much anything.” She added, with a smile. “Kind of like Hercules.”
“Kind of exactly like Hercules.” Gabrielle responded quietly. “Matter of fact.” She added, as Lila regarded her with a speculative look. “We got that confirmed, a while back.”
Lila paused, then nodded. “We kind of assumed.” Her sister said. “Does that mean Dori – “ She hesitated.
“We kind of assumed.” Gabrielle said. “Time will tell.”
Gabrielle watched Dori and Cari join the rest of the kids, who were gathering around the low children’s table where a platter of cookies had, in fact materialized from Cyrene’s kitchen down the hill.
The other kids made way for her and for Cari, and they all took seats as the minders set down the platters and big pewter pitchers.
Dori observed the hands reaching to grab the snacks and she leaned over the table, picking up five of the cookies. She gave one to Cari, then she got up and came trotting over. “Mama, cookies!” She offered her one and then eyed Lila. “Cookie?”
“Sure.” Lila accepted the treat. “Thank you, Dori.”
Dori grinned. “Mama, you give this one to Boo?” She asked. “It’s Boo’s favorite kind.”
She held up the last cookie and Gabrielle reached solemnly over to take it. “I will, honey.” She promised. “And I know Boo will be really happy you saved one for her.”
“Okay.” Dori turned and loped back to the table, sitting down next to Cari with the remaining treat and putting it in her mouth.
“Aww.” Lila took a bite of the cookie. “So what are these guys going to do while we go the altars?”
“Oh, they’ll play some games, and then the minders will try to get them to settle down to bed.” Gabrielle responded. “So they can have their party. Been a long day for them.”
“The kids or the minders?”
“Yes.” Gabrielle responded drolly. “They were in charge of the four who graduated, and let me tell you there wasn’t much sleeping to be had last night with all that.”
Lila chuckled, and shook her head. “Kids are kids, I guess.” She remarked. “Though coming of age at home is more new dresses and less leather and drums.”
At that moment, Xena returned from outside, threading her way through the crowd as she came to stand next to her partner. “Everyone’s ready.” She told her. “Waiting on you.”
“Here.” Gabrielle handed her a cookie. “Please eat that, and then tell your daughter you did because you know she’ll ask.”
Xena amiably took a bite of the cookie. “Ah. Came from town.” She chewed and swallowed. “Cooks have gotten better but they’re not bakers yet.”
“No, me neither really.” Gabrielle admitted. “Takes too much discipline. I like to make it up as I go.”
Xena finished her cookie and took a swig from Gabrielle’s mug to rinse the crumbs down. “C’mon and lets get this started. I’m over the drums.”
Gabrielle stood up and waited, as Xena draped her cloak over her shoulders. “Li, we’ll be back in a little while. Hang out with the kids if you want.”
Lila regarded her with a speculative look. “I’ll go with you, if you don’t mind me.” She said. “I had a chance to rest.” She got up. “In for the whole experience, right?”
Xena and Gabrielle exchanged a brief look, then Xena shrugged. “She’s a grown up.” She said. “Why not?” She regarded Lila. “Just don’t be surprised at anything you see.”
“I’ll try not to.”
“It’s an easier climb this way anyway.” Gabrielle admitted. “Everyone else’ll have to go around from the bottom and it’s a pain in the ass, honestly.”
Her sister gave a firm nod. “And I can put an offering on the altar too. Maybe we’ll get some of your good luck.” Lila concluded, as she saw her sister’s expression of agreement. “I told mom I was going to try that.”
“Let’s go.” Gabrielle waved at the kids. “Be good, all of you!” She said. “Behave, okay?”
The children giggled at her. Xena went over and knelt next to Dori, who turned with evident pleasure as Xena spoke to her and then hopped off her stool and threw her arms around Xena’s neck in an enthusiastic hug.
Lila watched, and then glanced to the side to see Gabrielle’s loving expression as she did as well, her sister’s face easing into an affectionate smile as the two bumped noses, then Xena stood and waved casually at the rest of the kids before heading back their way.
Xena extended a hand as she reached them and Gabrielle took it, lacing their fingers together before they threaded their way through the benches and tables towards the door.
They emerged from the hall to find a torchlit procession waiting, pretty much all of the tribe save a few of the elders, and the kids they’d left behind were waiting, soft drumming coming from the rear that got louder as Gabrielle was spotted.
“Finally.” Xena bounced a little on the balls of her feet.
“Yep -here we go.” Gabrielle took a grip on her staff and the crowd parted to let them through and then closed in behind her to follow as she, Xena and Lila started towards the entrance of the village, and the path up the ridge.
The tribe filed out behind them and they turned and started upward. The path, usually dark and silent after dark had been lined with lit torches that cast shadows up into the trees with their new leaf growth on either side.
Someone started a chant to the rhythm of the drums and as they walked one of the senior warriors came forward and edged up behind Xena, offering her one of the drums.
With a resigned grin, she took it and slipped the leather strap over her shoulders, settling the instrument just below her navel, and flexing her fingers before she started a counter rhythm.
Lila walked along, trying not to let the strangeness overwhelm her. Even having her sister walk beside her didn’t help much, because Gabrielle was in that brief clothing, the leather skirt and chest binding, her cloak draped back over her shoulders and the torchlight gilding her bare skin.
It was a steady climb, and she was aware of the rhythmic footsteps behind her, the wordless chant rising around her and making her ears itch just a little bit.
Past Gabrielle she could see Xena’s profile, relaxed and with a faint smile, as she walked along and tapped her drum, with fingertips and the edge of her thumb in counterpoint as that same torchlight picked up glints off the metal armor she was wearing and the sword hilt visible just past her shoulder.
Then they were at the top of the ridge, and emerging from the path into the clearing, where the moon was outlining a wood and stone cabin. She could hear the sound of water in the distance, and there was the smell of timber and leather in the air.
“That’s our place.” Gabrielle commented, her voice making Lila start a little. “We can stop there on the way back.”
“It’s nice.” Lila said. “I like the porch.”
“Yeah me too.” Her sister agreed. “I love having tea in the morning there when it’s decent weather.” She shifted her hand on her staff and they followed the torches, which marched across the front of the rise and then angled off up a second incline towards the ridge.
The air was cooler up here, and Lila pulled her cloak around her as they moved through the trees, glad at least the slope here was kinder. As they walked, she started to see carved posts on either side, but it was too dark to make them out.
She had a sense they were related the gods, though, and that thought made her skin prickle. She glanced at Xena, and thought about what Gabrielle had said earlier, and she wondered, about the gods, and how that all fit in now.
They wound through a smaller clearing with two or three trees in it, on the edge of a cliff and as they passed one of them, both Xena and Gabrielle glanced at it, and then exchanged grins. But they didn’t stop, just kept going to a large stone edifice past it where there were two oil lamps prominently burning.
They came to a halt. The drumming and the chanting stopped, and then it was very quiet save the wind and the sound of the flames in torches and lanterns fluttering.
The stonework held a gate in it, made of wrought iron, and after a moment Ephiny edged through the crowd and held up a key.
Gabrielle took it, and unlocked the gate, pushing it open and watching it swing out over the edge of the cliff. Through it, the moon lit the valley beyond, casting a faint sparkle on the river in the distance.
Hanging from the stone were ropes, that were draped down over the cliff face. They had knots tied in them, and the stones were anchoring them firmly in place. “Amazons.” Gabrielle drew in a breath and projected her voice. “This route has danger in it, and I bid you be careful as you take these lines down the rock to the altars.”
The faces watching her nodded, all of them well used to roping through trees and in the valley and confident of their skills.
“Li.” Gabrielle now lowered her voice and sounded more ordinary. “We’ll make a rope chair and lower you. The climb down’s tough.”
Lila edged over and looked down. “Good idea.” She drew back hastily. “Great gods.”
“Everyone wait here.” Xena took hold of one of the ropes and stepped out into space. “Let me make sure nothing’s weird.” She started down the cliff face hand over hand, moving easily down the rock face and out of the torchlight.
Pony and Solari had pulled up another of the ropes and were fashioning into a cradle for Lila, as the rest milled around and got closer, some looking out over the edge to watch Xena’s progress.
Cait sidled up to where Gabrielle was standing and unobtrusively got to where she could be the next one down. “Great night, isn’t it?”
Gabrielle eyed her, a grin appearing on her face. “Pretty good so far.”
Xena reached the lower level and let go of the rope, dropping the last bodylength or so to the ground, dusting her hands off as she moved through the moonlight to the dual caves and stone facings that made up the twin altars.
They were side by side but could not be more different, as befit the gods they celebrated. The right hand side held the altar for the Goddess of Love, and was all bright colors and crystal faced stone, lined with white limestone.
On the left, Ares’ altar which was dark granite and river stone, the altar itself a slab of polished black obsidian that smelled of copper and blood, it’s pulsing energy red hued and potent.
Xena reviewed both, seeing new offerings and evidence pilgrims had scaled up the cliff from the valley floor to make them. There was a firepit to one side, and she knelt next to it, holding her hand over the blackened surface to feel some residual heat.
Not much, but some. She made a circuit of the area to make sure no one was around, then she went back to the cliff and let out a set of piercing whistles.
A moment later, Gabrielle answered, and the four ropes draped down the cliff shivered into motion.
Xena studied them, and then she returned to the altars, bypassing both to take a seat on the solid piece of square rock in front of them and wait.
Lila kept her eyes closed the whole way down, as her rope basket inched towards the lower level, bumping her shoulders against the cliff face with jarring regularity. The rope itself was wrapped around her, over her cloak but forcing her head into a bowed position.
It had seemed like a good idea in the Amazon village. No one had mentioned this massive cliff or climbing ropes or anything like that.
She squinted open one eye and then shut it again as the rope jerked, grimacing a little as she heard Gabrielle call up encouragingly at her from her position already at the bottom.
Sure, sis. Just relax. Lila sighed. And what had happened to her sister’s fear of heights? She’d seen her just grab that rope and start down without a second thought, after taking off her cloak and tossing it down.
Like it was nothing. Like Xena had. Like the rest of the Amazons had, their agile, powerful bodies displaying a confident strength that was just so different from all the other women she knew.
From her. Watching Gabrielle climb down that rope punctuated that and though she’d known for some time in her head about that, now she felt it in her guts, this difference that made her older sister far more a part of these Amazons than her own blood family.
The Gabrielle she’d shared confidences with, in the privacy of their tiny bedroom was not this Gabrielle. This was a different person, one she was coming to realize she didn’t really know much at all.
Then she felt hands grabbing her and she was being twisted around, and she opened her eyes to see herself surrounded by Amazons, busy untying the ropes. “Thanks.”
“That wasn’t so bad huh?” Gabrielle stepped back to let her get free of the basket and away from the edge of the cliff. “It’s not a bad drop, really.”
“Nope.” Lila lied cheerfully, glad to be on solid ground again. “It was fine.” She paused to look around, finding herself on a wide level space, which extended out along the edge of the slope where it was lined with a stone wall, now visible in the red torchlight.
There was a big square stone in the middle of the space where Xena was seated, draped in her cloak and kicking her bootheels against, and two caves cut back into the face that were also outlined with built out stone with a fire circle in the middle of them.
Some of the Amazons were building a fire in the pit, and there were torches scattered around, lit and burning, their flames fluttering in the breeze. The air held a spring chill, and overhead a blanket of stars was twinkling.
Gabrielle came up next to her. “So.”
“So.” Lila said. “Show me around?”
“Sure.” Gabrielle led her over to the first of the caves. The front of it was made of clean, white stone and inside there were oil lamps that spilled a gentle, golden light on the interior. At the rear there was an altar, and on it’s surface were remnants of many gifts, dried flowers, and squares of fabric, necklaces and trinkets. “This is our shrine to Aphrodite.”
Lila looked around it. “Wow.” She said. “Best we had back home was a little wooden box.”
“Mm.” Gabrielle went over and gently brushed some leaves off the top of the altar. “We decided if we were going to do this, we’d do it right.” She said. “Everyone worked hard on it, bringing the stone up here and all that.”
She indicated a small pool in the very back, a soft tinkling of water coming down the wall feeding it and leaving behind a sheen of color. “The women from town come up here, and take some of that, sometimes. Even in the worst part of winter it never froze.”
Lila went over and knelt down, putting her hand into the water, then drawing it up and sipping from it. “That’s sweet.”
“It is.” Her sister agreed. “I think it trickles down through the rock from up near our place. Tastes the same.” She went over and knelt next to Lila, putting both hands into the pool and feeling the crisp freshness against her skin. “They think it helps make babies.”
Lila eyed her. “You think it does?”
“No.” Gabrielle produced a wry smile. “But it’s good water.” She shook her hands free of the droplets. “And who am I to judge anyway?” She stood up, chuckling.
Two Amazons came in behind them with armfuls of new green leaves, some early spring fresh flowers, and some dried flower and nut necklaces they started to arrange everywhere, spreading the scent of new life through the cavern.
Gabrielle could smell mint tea being brewed outside, and a hint of ginger on the air. “Come see the other one.” She told Lila. “Its different.” She warned.
“I bet.” Lila followed her out and they crossed the open space to the second cavern entrance, which was lined in dark gray granite and lit from within from crimson tinted lamps. “Oh, wow.” She eyed the interior. “Yeah. Different!”
The second altar was more than different. It was made from black stone, the top an irregularly shaped surface fitted over obsidian square columns and when Lila looked into the stone, she could almost imagine there was a deep glow coming from inside it.
It smelled of musk, and at the edges, of blood, and if she concentrated, she thought she could get a hint of leather on the air.
“And this is our shrine to Ares, God of War.” Gabrielle smiled a little, putting her hand down on the top of the altar in an almost affectionate seeming pat.
“Yikes.” Lila turned around in a circle, and then looked back at her sister. “This is sort of scary.” She regarded her sister, in her barbaric outfit, leaning against the stone. “The men back in Potadeia had a little cave they used, back in the woods.”
“I remember.” Gabrielle smiled a little. “I used to go in there when it rained when I was out with the flock.”
Lila stared at her. “You did?”
Her sister shrugged a little, then glanced past her as Xena entered, taking off her cloak and tossing it over a wrought iron stand near the wall meant for weapons storage. “They getting ready outside?”
“They are.” Xena confirmed, walking over to the altar and putting her hands down on it with confident firmness. “We’re going to renew the blood offering.” She gave her partner a sideways glance. “With the rest of the presents.”
“What does that mean?” Lila asked.
Xena turned and leaned against the altar. “When we dedicated this, we all put some blood on it.” She held up her right hand, which had a scar bisecting it, and then Gabrielle extended hers, with the same mark.
“Oh.” Lila frowned. “That’s kinda gross. What does it do?”
“When we came back the next day, the altar was glowing.” Gabrielle responded, with a brief grin. “Still is. Xena said that meant Ares accepted the offering.”
“How do you know?” Lila ventured over and peered at the altar. “Oh, I thought I was imagining that. It is glowing in there.”
Gabrielle and Xena exchanged glances. “She just knows.” Gabrielle said. “So for this festival, we’re doing that, plus.. um… “
The drumming started again outside, and a gentle piping began with it. “That first I guess.” Xena said. “Too messy otherwise.” She produced a somewhat ghoulish grin. “Let’s go join the crowd.”
Gabrielle pushed away from the altar, not without giving it a final pat, and they exited the shrine to find the Amazons assembled outside.
Elders mixed with senior warriors mixed with juniors, and near the entrance to Aphrodite’s shrine, the young Tarah dressed in a gentle draping of white, supple leather, her hair tied back in strips of it whose ends were dangling down her back.
Her new token was fastened to the front, and her face looked fresh, and a little flushed, and excited. Solari and Nala were on either side of her in their Amazon leathers, but sans weapons. Three of the Amazons had brought wineskins and were circulating, using the long spouts to deliver the beverage directly into mouths rather than bother with cups.
“What’s going on?” Lila whispered to Gabrielle.
Gabrielle cleared her throat a little. “She’s a virgin.” She responded, as though that should explain it all.
“Okay.” Her sister said. “And?”
Xena chuckled almost soundlessly, then hopped sideways to avoid being pinched in the behind. “She’s the sacrifice to the Goddess of Love.” She said. “As in, her virginity is.”
Lila cocked her head to one side in thought. “Ah.” She finally grunted. “All we ever gave back home was a basket of fruit. No wonder you had better results.” She unslung the small pack from her back. “I brought this.” She opened the pack and withdrew an item, displaying it on her hand.
It was a nicely wrought bracelet, carefully hammered silver flowers mixed with tiny knots that had colored gems inset into them.
“Oh, that’s pretty!” Gabrielle leaned closer to look at it. “Isn’t that nice, Xe?”
Xena reached out to touch one of the flowers with a fingertip. “It really is.”
Lila was pleased with the reaction. “I thought so, it was my idea, kinda, and Lennat worked a long, long time on it. He never made anything like it before.”
“She’s going to love that.” Gabrielle murmured. “Aphrodite, I mean.”
Lila stared at her. “How do you know?”
“She just knows.” Xena draped her arm over Gabrielle’s shoulders. “But I agree with her. It’s pretty.” She said. “After the ceremony, you can put it on the slab in there.”
Lila edged to one side to get a better view of the front of the shrine. “So wh.. I mean, how do..”
Xena looked in question at her partner.
Gabrielle cleared her throat again. “Well, the idea is they want to honor Aprhrodite and spring, so they get a volunteer from the tribe, and then they approach someone to help celebrate and then they um..” She lifted her hands and moved them. “Have sex.”
“Really.” Lila seemed more intrigued than shocked.
“That’s the theory anyway. It’s our first stab at this.” Her sister admitted. “We’ll see how it works out.” She started around the side of the crowd. “Lets get a better view.”
“Who’s gonna do it?” Lila whispered to Xena as they followed. “Anyone I know?”
“I missed that meeting.” Xena muttered, straightening to her full height and peering over the crowd. “Find out in a minute.”
“Not my sister, is it?”
Xena chuckled wryly. “No.” She drew breath to continue, then paused, hearing something behind them. “Be right back.” She turned and went back through the Amazons, heading for the edge of the cliff.
Lila hesitated, then she hurried after Gabrielle, catching up to her as she reached the front of the crowd.
Xena eased through the crowd, aware of the eyes following her with mild speculation as she moved further away from the shrines, walking over the neatly swept ground that nevertheless crunched softly under her boots.
Through the intense drumming, she’d heard the sound of steel against rock. Going to the well built rock wall that lined the ledge and came up to her hips, she put her hands on it and leaned over, peering down.
The moonlight lined everything in ghostly silver and below them, on the chiseled path that led up from the cliff’s edge she could see a line of bodies moving upward.
A dozen maybe, male, and she could also see at least two animals with them, small enough to be shorn sheep or goats.
Great. She exhaled. Perfect timing.
The drums got abruptly louder, and she heard whistles go up, low, and sensual, making her skin prickle a little bit as she straightened up in reaction, one hand drifting in reflex to one of the daggers in the small of her back.
She turned, spotting a tall figure in white being led towards the front of the shrine, and she blinked and looked a little closer, recognizing her own captain, Bennu, his curly hair and short trimmed beard distinctive.
Bennu. She acknowledged herself both distracted and surprised, and for a moment she wavered, watching the ceremony but swiveling around to watch the approaching group as well. That they’d pick a warrior wasn’t surprising, given the circumstances.
Bennu wasn’t attached, and despite the sprinkling of scars he wasn’t unattractive either and she could see from the expression on his face, he felt the honor of it all.
Xena turned back around and looked out over the valley, trying to figure out why it made her feel so unsettled, given all that.
The kid’s age maybe? Bennu was a seasoned fighter, fierce in war but also with a gentle heart to commend him and yet, still.
She frowned, and then leaned on the wall to inspect the oncoming group, judging their progress. Then she went to the gates in the wall which were standing open, and paused in the middle of them, hands on both sides.
She could see the group, after a minute, pause as they spotted her and they gathered together at one of the turns in the stone stairs and looked up.
It was a very long hike, up steps that were often short travelled and hand hewn into the side of the mountain meant to validate the desire of the accolytes to make their offerings and provide a challenge to them to avoid casual bystanders.
The group shuffled, and then one figure continued up the climb, tall and athletic, and with a brisk step that made little of the stairs as they headed up towards her. The rest settled in to wait, taking seats on the steps bathed in moonlight.
Xena stepped onto the first of the stairs past the gates, and swung them shut behind her as she let her arms rest on the wall, blocking the way.
Gabrielle turned briefly. “Where’d Xe go?” She asked Lila, who was at her shoulder and watching with interest.
“She said she’d be right back.” Lila said. “I think she heard something, or something.”
Gabrielle looked past her, but the darkness of the plateau and the brightness of the torches put anything past the first edge of the crowd invisible.
She felt inside herself, trying to determine if she sensed anything from her partner, but felt only a mild curiosity, so she shrugged a little and returned her attention to the ceremony.
“Isn’t that one of Xena’s men?”
“It is.” Gabrielle whispered back. “Bennu. He’s really nice.” She was surprised, a little, but watching Bennu’s rugged, honest face made her smile as he came forward through the tribe, dressed in white linen.
She walked forward to greet him and he grinned on seeing her, with a slightly embarrassed expression. “Welcome, Bennu.” She held out her hands and he took them. “Thank you for being a part of our offering.”
Ephiny and Eponin came up on either side of him and stood.
“T’is an honor you asked, little hawk.” Bennu replied. “Don’t think I’ll live down the asking for a while though.” He added, with a sheepish little smile.
Gabrielle squeezed his hands and then she stepped back and turned to face the tribe. “My sisters, we come here tonight to give thanks for the spring and the good fortune we hope to continue through the seasons ahead.”
She turned her head and regarded Tarah. “Our newest sister, are you ready to give this gift?”
Tarah paused, then nodded, glancing at Bennu and then back at Gabrielle. “Yes, my queen.” She replied in a soft voice. “And I hope it pleases the Goddess.”
Gabrielle smiled at her. “Not a doubt of it.” She took a step to the side and then she led the way into the shrine, where the altar was already draped with a beautifully tanned sheepskin, surrounded by candles that leant the space a rich, floral scent.
She paused in the center of the space, as the Amazons filed in behind her, fitting as many of them in as possible, the drums silent as everyone repositioned.
The energy was palpable. Gabrielle could feel it beating against her and she missed Xena’s presence in a brief, pungent pang that caught her breath in her throat. She exhaled and addressed the altar, lifting her hands to either side.
Was there a set speech for this? She didn’t think so. “Aphrodite! We gather here to celebrate your influence in our lives, the influence of love on all of us.” Gabrielle intoned. “I hope you accept our offering in the spirit it is given.”
The drums started up again, and then one of the Amazons settled down with a lap harp and another with a pipe and the rest started to stamp in an insistent rhythm. Gabrielle backed away from the altar, clearing the way for Ephiny and Eponin to lead Bennu and Tarah forward.
Tarah’s face was flushed, and she drew a breath in as Bennu gently took hold of her at the waist and boosted her up onto the altar.
Gabrielle let the crowd come in behind and around her, and she casually eased herself back through it until she felt her shoulders touch the wall.
To her left, she saw Solari next to Lila, whispering and pointing to the altar and after a pause to be sure everything was moving along without her she sidestepped to the entrance and out into the night.