A Change of Seasons
Xena watched the man approach her, climbing steadily up the chiseled steps, one hand resting lightly on the rock wall as he lifted his eyes and observed her waiting.
He was close enough now for her to see he was relatively young, with curly black hair and a trimmed beard. He was wearing leather and metal armor, and she could see a sword hilt over his shoulder and he moved with confident strength.
Could be interesting. Xena casually glanced around her, judging how much room she had to maneuver without the possibility of taking a header down the cliff as the man came up the last dozen steps and stopped just out of her reach.
For a long moment, they just regarded each other. Xena remained leaning against the rock wall, hands lightly clasped, legs crossed at her ankles and waited in silence.
“Who holds the path?” The man eventually asked.
“Who’s asking?” Xena responded, with a light drawl.
“Alexis of Ithaca.” He said. “I have lead a good handful of my fellow citizens here to present an offering to Ares.” He paused. “Now I have answered. Who blocks my way?” He tilted his head back a trifle to regard her.
“Xena.” She said. “I live here.” She added. “There’s a ceremony going on right now. You’re welcome to offer whatever you want once it’s done.”
He came up another step and put his hand against the rock. “What kind of ceremony?” He asked. “May we then join it? I would be glad to add our offering to others.” He straightened up a little under Xena’s steady regard. “We want to catch the moon on the rise.”
Xena looked up at the orb. “Half candlemark, maybe.” She judged. “Its pretty full right now up there.”
Alexis watched the body before him shift a bit, noting the clear motion of muscle under the moonlit skin exposed by the light set of armor she wore. He could see the sword hilt as well, and from the height of her, and the breadth of those shoulders it was no ceremonial decoration.
She was beautiful and he felt a fascination of her that surprised him a bit. He had known women in plenty but the sense of presence of this one, and the arrogant confidence was to him, new.
New and exciting.
“Are you an acolyte of Ares?” He ventured. “You seem no doubt martial.”
Xena smiled briefly. “Something like that.” She agreed. “I’ve been around a battlefield or two in my time.”
He came a step further. “Then shall we be friends?” He offered a hand. “For I, too, have been around a battlefield once or twice.” He smiled easily at her. “And I would rather share a cup than a blade with you.”
A somewhat pleasant surprise. Xena amiably straightened up and returned the clasp. “Why not?” She asked. “Welcome to Amphipolis.” She added, with a smile back. “You’ve come a long way.”
Alexis nodded, then he turned and gestured to his group he’d left behind them, making a stay put gesture with his hand she recognized. “We have. We left two moons past, after we heard about this new shrine.” He turned and regarded Xena. “As well as the favor Ares showered on it.”
Xena cocked her head a little bit to one side. “News travels fast.” She said. “Given the past weather.”
He nodded, hearing the question in her tone. “Many speak of it, more the closer we came. That Ares has chosen this mountaintop for his presence, and his powers favor those in the area.” The man stated confidently. “We hear he draws those such as yourself as well.”
“Not sure of that, really.” She folded her arms over her chest and leaned a shoulder against the stone as well. “Since I was born here.” She shook her head slightly. “Town’s been around for a while now, the shrines are pretty new to the area.”
There was a crude bench carved into a niche in the wall and he sat down on it, extending his dust covered boots out and resting both hands on either side of him. “Interesting.” He said. “Tales have traveled all the way to my island home of armies and great creatures, and even Amazons being called to this place.” He looked up at Xena. “Do you say that is not true?” He watched the woman’s pale eyes study him, the moonlight casting half her face in shadow, half in silver glow.
Xena pondered for a moment. “There are soldiers, and Amazons here, all right. That’s who’s up by the shrine matter of fact. I’m just not sure it’s Ares that drew them.” Her lips twitched into a faint, almost mischievous grin.
She paused as the sound of the gates opening behind her rang softly and turned her head, to see a familiar figure making it’s way down to where they were standing. “Ah, speaking of Amazons.”
The gates closed, then there was a soft rasp of leather boots against the rock and a moment later the familiarity of a hand coming to rest on her shoulder as Gabrielle peeked past her. “Hi there.”
Alexis tilted his head to one side. “Greetings to you.” He replied with courtesy, standing up and making a slight bow.
“My partner, Gabrielle.” Xena supplied. “This is Alexis. He’s from Ithaca.”
“Long trip.” Gabrielle smiled at him.
“It was indeed.” The man agreed. “And now at the end of it, we find ourselves stymied in our progress.” He looked from one to the other, as the drumming sound elevated, and then the joined chanting voices lifted up into the air and echoed against the stone. “What ceremony is this?”
“An Amazon ceremony.” Gabrielle said. “We had some youngsters become warriors tonight.” She added. “Sorry to make you wait, but it’s really a ladies only event.” She paused briefly. “We’ve got some wine. Want some?”
Alexis studied them both, with a faint furrow to his brow. “Your customs are unfamiliar to me.” He admitted. “I have never met an Amazon before, so I do not know of this ceremony, but yes, ma’am, wine would be welcome from your hand.”
“Aw.” Gabrielle’s eyes twinkled. “If all Ithacans are as courteous as you, they’re more than welcome here.” She turned. “Let me go get a wineskin. Be right back.”
Alexis watched her go, then glanced at Xena. “Are there many Amazons like that one?”
Xena muffled a chuckle. “About a hundred here. But that one’s unique.” She said. “She’s adopted into the tribe, matter of fact. Gabrielle’s from Potadeia, downriver from here.”
“Ah, so she was drawn here, in fact.” Alexis smiled.
“She was.” Xena admitted. “Just not by Ares.” She went over and sat down on the rock ledge, and gestured for him to join her. “Long story.”
Alexis took a seat again. “This is becoming more and more interesting. My father sent me and my friends here to try and gain some of Ares’ favor. We’ve been invaded thrice, and defeated in the last two seasons.”
“Been a lot of fighting going on.” Xena agreed. “Spartans, Thracians, you name it.” She commiserated. “Glad they backed off on the last war.”
Alexis looked at her. “Sparta, you mean?”
Xena nodded. “They put an invasion force ashore in Thrace. They came right by here heading for Therma.” She folded her arms and extended her legs out, crossing them at the ankles. “Pain in the ass.”
The man slowly turned on the bench and stared at her. “The story we heard in Ithaca was a Thracian warlord turned them back.” He said. “We came ashore in Therma. They still speak of it – a wom…” He paused. “Hold a moment. Are you that Xena? Who delivered Therma from the Spartans?”
Xena nodded. “That’d be me.” She agreed. “Though I’m not really a Thracian warlord, at least not anymore.” She said. “More just a grumpy troublemaker now.” She grinned at him.
She hiked up one knee and wrapped her hands around it, watching him watch her. “I try not to start trouble but I do finish it.”
Gabrielle reappeared with a wineskin and some cups. “Hey hon.” She paused to pour. “They’re almost ready for you up there to start the blooding.” She handed Alexis one of the cups. “There ya go, man from Ithaca.”
Alexis took it, distracted, still staring at Xena. “They call you Ares Chosen.” He finally said, in a somewhat hushed tone.
“They call her a lot of things.” Gabrielle sat down, handing a cup of wine to her partner. “That’s not my favorite, personally.” She leaned back and exhaled, wiggling her boots a little. “But it is true. If Ares has a champion in this mortal world, it’s her.” She regarded Xena fondly. “He has good taste.”
The man clutched his winecup to him. “Then our journey here has already bourn sweet fruit.” He said, finally smiling again. “And I am already blessed.”
The drumming from up over the hill edge suddenly reached a crescendo, and brought with it a loud series of yells and hoots, culminating in a long drumroll and then silence.
Then laughs, and cheers.
Xena and Gabrielle touched cups and saluted each other in silence, then stood up. Then Xena turned to the still seated Alexis. “Bring your friends up. We’re all going to lay blood on Ares altar if you’re interested.”
“Interested???” He hopped to his feet. “By the gods!” He turned and started down the steps at a rapid scamper, holding his wine cup up as bits of the wine sloshed over the side, laying a line of dark red behind him.
Gabrielle chuckled wryly. “Oh Xe.”
Xena drained her cup and gestured towards the gate. “Hey he’s got manners at least.”
The mood on the plateau was good. Xena put her hand on Gabrielle’s back as they approached the crowd, finding the wine flowing and people coming in and out of Aphrodite’s shrine, leaving offerings of a more tangible kind for the goddess.
Tarah was seated on the rock outside, her face flushed and happy, with a cup of wine in one hand. She looked up as they approached and produced a little, excited grin as her queen arrived.
Lila was standing next to her, with a cup of wine in her own hand. “Where did you fly off to?” She asked her sister. “You missed the main event.”
Xena put her arm around Gabrielle and felt the warmth as her partner leaned against her. “We had visitors.” She indicated the gate. “We were entertaining them until you were done.” She eyed Lila. “What’dja think?”
Lila cleared her throat a little. “Not how I expected the evening to go.” She admitted. “Definitely not something we’d do back home.” She added. “But to be honest, with all the music and dancing and all that.. I think I liked it.”
Xena blinked in some slight surprise. “Really?”
“Yeah. I’ll leave some details out when I tell our mother though.” Lila chuckled a little. “She’ll be glad I made the offering. She wasn’t looking forward to climbing all the way up here.”
Gabrielle put one boot up onto the rock and leaned closer to Tarah. “You doing okay?” She asked, with a gentle smile.
Tarah nodded vigorously. “It was amazing.” She told Gabrielle. “Totally not what I expected. I really felt like the goddess was right there with us.” Her eyes were bright and reflected the truth of the statement, and she sipped her wine with an air of triumphant achievement.
Well. Gabrielle squeezed her shoulder. “Thank you for offering yourself on our behalf. I bet Aphrodite was there, and it made her very happy.”
“True that.” Solari appeared, with a string of flowers around her neck. “Hey that bracelet was super nice.” She addressed Lila. “Renas wants to talk to you about it, she was impressed.”
Lila smiled, swirling the wine in her cup and taking a sip of it. “She really needs to talk to my husband, but sure.” She said. “Be glad to, is she the one who made the stuff on sale down in the market?”
Solari nodded. “Her and her partner, yeah. They make good stuff.” She glanced at Gabrielle. “Hey, where’s your flowers?”
Gabrielle regarded her with mild interest. “Where did you get yours?”
Solari surprisingly blushed. “Oh, someone put them on me.”
“Hang on.” Xena drawled. “I recognize a cue when I hear one. Be right back.” She circled the stone and headed towards a cluster of people near the front of the shrine entrance around the other celebrant of the evening, her militia captain.
Bennu was allowing himself to be decorated with strings of flowers, his rugged face scrunched in a mixture of pleasure and embarrassment as the Amazons took the opportunity to give him a kiss as well.
He caught Xena watching him and turned beet red, which made his commander start laughing. “Aye, Xena.” He muttered as she came up to his side. “Had to keep my eyes closed with all them looking.” He admitted. “Never done nothing like that before.”
“You did great, Benny.” Xena gave him a pat on the back. “Ya did the army proud.”
Bennu grinned again.
“We’ve got our first set of visitors for the festival.” Xena lowered her voice and pointed at the gate, which was swinging open to reveal the Ithacans, eyed wide as they climbed up onto the plateau.
“Looking for t’other one, I’m guessing.” Bennu eyed them. “Got a goat there for him?”
“Yeah. Nice guys, so far.” She said. “They landed at Therma.”
Bennu smiled. “Heard about that fight there surely.”
“Apparently.” Xena winked at him, then she ducked into Ares shrine, going over to the weapons rack to lift up her cloak and remove a twined double strand of flowers from under it. She held it up, then put the cloak back down and headed back outside.
Gabrielle was still standing by the big stone, and she turned and looked back as Xena approached, her face breaking into a smile as she saw what Xena had in her hands.
She turned all the way around to face her partner as she arrived, reaching out to gently rest her hands on Xena’s hips as she lifted her arms up and settled the fragrant necklace around her. “Oh, Xe. Those are so pretty.”
Two strings of blooms in all colors, twisted in a pattern that was visible even in the low light from the torches, made with the obsessive attention to detail so typical to Xena and surprising to those that did not know her well.
“Not nearly as pretty as you.” Xena informed her, with a sweet and affectionate smile that literally made Gabrielle’s heart skip a beat. She closed her eyes and leaned forward as Xena bent her head to kiss her, enjoying the moment and doing her best to block out the watching eyes.
The scent of the flowers drifted up as they parted, and touched foreheads in a moment of this public acknowledgement of each other.
Which was also their private offering to Aphrodite. They kissed again, amidst the cheers of the Amazons who had seen them, and gathered around to witness the rite of the season and this proof of their leader’s devotion.
A moment of indulgence in the sweetness of love, before they turned to offering the blood from the other half of their dual nature.
Xena kept her back to the entrance for a moment, resting her hands on the altar as she heard the crowd gathering behind her, as many as could fit at once.
She could feel the energy and she drew in a breath that imagined the copper tang of blood already in the air to join the scent of steel as the Amazons drew their weapons out and a flicker of motion to her right resolved into Gabrielle’s fire outlined form as she came to stand next to her.
She had her flowers still on, and she was facing forward, her hands settling on her hips as she watched the crowd, a brief, faint smile on her face.
She turned her head, and their eyes met.
Xena lifted her hands and turned so they were shoulder to shoulder, then paused as Gabrielle opened up her belt pouch and removed something from it, taking a step in front of her, turning, and lifting her hands.
Ah, presents. Xena’s eyes twinkled, as she felt the pressure of Gabrielle’s wrists against her neck as she fastened a necklace in place. “What’s that?”
“Something I had made for you.” Gabrielle adjusted the necklace. “One of Dori’s rocks, all polished up.”
Xena glanced down at the bauble, which was a stone the size of the end of her thumb, cut in an oval clasped in the hammered silver claws of a bird in flight. It was hard to tell what the color was, but she could see the facets of it. “Wow, that’s nice.” She murmured. “Beautiful work.”
“Not nearly as beautiful as you are.” Gabrielle leaned closer and kissed her gently on the chest. “So lets get this going, huh? I want our bed.” She uttered softly.
“Me too.” Xena gave her a hug and then released her as Gabrielle returned to her place next to her and they were facing the assembled Amazons.
She drew her sword, letting the tip of it rest against her shoulder, noting the bearded face of Alexis peering in the door in fascination. “Amazons.” She spoke aloud. “In the old days, you were known as the daughters of Ares.”
They answered with a wordless yell, Ephiny and Eponin taking a step forward to come to a place halfway between the altar and the rest of the tribe, both with swords drawn. “We claim that, again!” Ephiny called out in a loud voice.
Gabrielle remained silent, waiting to join in the ceremony, but leaving the speech to her partner, just as Xena had left the talking to her in Aphrodite’s shrine. She could already feel the sting of the cut on her palm and her jaw tightened a little in anticipation, as she felt Xena draw in a breath to speak next to her.
“Then join me in offering blood to the stone.” Xena wrapped her hand around her sword edge and then removed it, holding her palm up, already stained in red. “For all those who live by the blade and are willing to die by it.”
She turned and put her hand on the altar, feeling the warmth against her skin from the center of it. Then she stepped back and Gabrielle took her place, displaying her own cut palm before adding the stain to Xena’s.
It hurt. She lifted her hand and stepped aside, resisting the urge to wipe the blood off on her skirt and she moved over a little more to allow Xena to clear space as Ephiny and Eponin led the march forward, exchanging brief smiles with her regent and weapons master.
“Nice.” Ephiny reached up and tapped the necklace Xena was wearing. “Mind if I borrow your blade for this?”
Her blade? Xena still had it cradled in one arm and she shifted and offered the edge of the dark metal, hammered patiently back into shape so many times after use.
Ephiny ran her hand lightly over it, and then turned, displaying the blood, before she moved past and touched the altar.
Pony took her place. “Keep it out, champ.” She repeated the motion and moved on, and now the Amazons were lining up and moving forward eagerly, their eyes on Xena, standing in stillness as her blade collected cut after cut.
Gabrielle could feel the prickle of dark energy behind her, enhanced by the excitement of the Amazons surrounding them and she marked the moment, sensing the change in the air as this tribe came forward and gladly pricked themselves on that sword.
On that sword, in those hands. “We’ve come a long way.” She muttered in a low tone she knew Xena would hear.
“Mm.” Xena grunted an answer, as Cait came even with her, reaching out with a truly happy smile, her new bracelet catching the torchfire as she closed her hand around the blade, coming away with a double cut. “No kidding.”
Alexis was the first of his group to come forward, as the last of the Amazons filtered through, emerging back out into the night where the drums had started as the tribe shared more wine, and the small bags of pastries and treats.
Xena glanced at him, as she picked up a fold of her cloak and wiped down her sword. “All yours.” She indicated the altar.
His eyes were almost glowing. “I never have felt his presence as I do here.” He said, staring at her. “It is as we heard – this is truly a place to worship him.” He moved forward and looked into the top slab of the stone. “It lights from within.”
Xena sheathed her sword. “It does.” She agreed, extending one hand out as Gabrielle came over with a strip of cloth to bind her palm.
“Xena.” Bennu stuck his head in. “Got a full lot comin up the steps.”
“Going to be a busy night.” Xena said.
“I’ll get everyone moving.” Gabrielle tied off the bandage and then turned Xena’s hand over, kissing the knuckles. “Don’t’ stay too long.”
“Yes, my queen.” Xena responded, eyes twinkling. “Right behind ya.” She watched her partner leave, then turned to regard Alexis. “Have fun.”
He turned to look at her. “We will.”
Xena swung her cloak over her shoulders, and ducked past them, following Gabrielle through the crowd.
They threaded her way through the Ithacans, who were looking around with wide eyes. “Listen.” Gabrielle paused next to the man holding the leather lead of the goat. “Maybe that’ll be a downgrade after all that?” She pointed at the animal, who was sniffing the blood on the air uneasily. “Know what I mean?”
The man looked at her. “Yes, lady.” He said, after a moment. “We will offer of ourselves.”
Gabrielle gave him a pat on the arm and passed outside, nearly tripping as the suddenly released goat bounded out after her and hit her in the leg. “Hey!”
“I’ll get it.” Xena turned and ambled after the goat. “Be right back.”
Solari came over and offered her a cup of wine. “They not going to offer that goat? We can get Cyrene to roast it for em if they want instead.”
Gabrielle took a sip of the raw, new wine. “Now you’re making me hungry.” She admitted. “Benny said we’ve got a crowd coming, so we should get back up the ropes.” She added. “Clear some space.”
“Oh, we are.” Solari turned and pointed, and in the torchlight irregularly illuminating the cliff face bodies could be seen, scaling the wall. “Everyone wants to get back to the village, y’know?” She grinned at her queen. “Gonna be a long night.”
Gabrielle smiled back. “Yes, it will.” She replied mildly. “Even with this.” She held up her hand, in it’s bandage, and Solari did the same with hers. “Nice touch using Xe’s sword.”
Solari nodded immediately. “Pony’s idea.” She said. “And you know, like those of us who’ve been around for a while were like… hm..”
“Yeah.” Gabrielle nodded wryly.
“But then Mara was like, yeah – that’ll seal it.” Solari continued. “And for the youngers it was like, absolutely and for us – “ She scratched her nose with one finger of the hand that had been cut. ‘I mean for me, it was yes.”
“Yeah, you’ve always been one of my crew.” Gabrielle acknowledged. “And you know, Sol, I’ve always really appreciated that. Not sure if I ever said it.”
Solari paused and regarded her. “Funny story around why I was.” She offered. “Maybe we can do brunch tomorrow yeah? I’ll tell ya.”
“Absolutely.” Gabrielle felt a hand on her back and turned to find Xena behind her, cloak in place. “Ready hon?”
“Oh yeah.” Xena said. “Where’s Lila?”
Solari chuckled. “The kids took her up.” She indicated the wall. “She was pretty cool about all of this.” She added. “I didn’t figure that. She’s so towny.”
“Yeah, me neither, actually.” Gabrielle admitted, as they started walking down the side path to the rear of the shrines, and the ropes dangling down the wall. “But then again, she is my sister.”
Xena chuckled. “Everyone’s evolving.” She noted. “Or maybe you’re rubbing off on her.” She reached the nearest of the ropes and steadied it. “Up you go.”
Gabrielle wiped her hands off, then paused as she looked at her cut one. “Oh, crap, Xe. We really didn’t think this through.”
“Everyone said that.” Solari agreed, stashing her cup in the carrysack over her shoulder. “Is what it is.” She took hold of the next rope and started up it, her wiry body moving with stolid grace upward.
“Ugh.” Gabrielle wrapped her hand a bit better and steeled herself. “Well, here we go.”
Xena brushed her cloak back over her shoulders and took hold of her partner, turning her around. “Put your arms around my neck.”
“Xena, c’mon.” Gabrielle poked her. “I’m not Dori. Everyone else is climbing.” She pointed out. “Don’t make me look like a wuss.”
“You’d rather me put you over my shoulder?” Xena raised her eyebrows and opened her eyes wide in mock innocence. “Really?”
Gabrielle could see the mischief in those eyes and she gave in, putting her arms around Xena’s neck as she was boosted up a little, and then wrapping her legs around her partner’s hips. A moment later she felt Xena reach behind her for the rope, then they were nose to nose. “Know what?”
“What?” Xena leaped up a little, and caught hold of the rope, getting her boots against the cliff and starting to walk upward, pulling them both through the air in a brash display of sheer strength that got attention from all the other climbers around them, making whistles go up in the air.
“I so totally love you.” Gabrielle put her head down and smiled, hearing the soft chuckle in response. “I don’t even care about looking like a wuss.”
“Ahh they’re just all jealous of your choice in consorts.”
It was good to get home. Gabrielle pushed the door closed and waited, as Xena went over and lit one of the candles on the table, adding it’s golden glow to the moonlight entering through the open shutters.
It was quieter than usual, with the girls and the dogs down in the village, and she could hear the small sounds of the cabin around them, the creaks of the boards under her boots, and the pops and crackles as Xena fed the fireplace with a ball of dried moss.
Gabrielle unwrapped her hand and inspected the cut, which had closed but was still painful. “Ow.”
Xena wandered over and put her chin on Gabrielle’s shoulder, peering over it. “We’re sorta morons.” She commented. “We should find a better way to offer if we’re gonna keep this up.”
“Mm.” Gabrielle leaned back. “Are we?” She asked. “Going to keep this up?” She re-wrapped the bandage. “And at least I didn’t climb up a cliff with my hand like this. Let me see yours.”
Xena slid her arms around Gabrielle’s body and turned her hands palms up. She watched indulgently as her partner unwrapped the bandage on her hand, both of them inspecting the thin, closed line displayed once the wrapping had come clear.
Gabrielle just lifted the hand up and kissed the spot, the injury seemingly unbothered by the climb. Then she reached back and patted Xena’s hip. “Wish I knew what they think about it.”
“Ares and Aphrodite.” She clarified.
Xena shrugged, the motion clear against Gabrielle’s back. “I’m sure they like it. What’s not to like, hundreds of people offering you stuff.” She responded, in a reasonable tone. “True?”
“True.” Her partner assented. “Everyone did seem to really get into it.”
“With my sword.” Xena reminded her dryly. “Speaking of, let me get this tin cannery off.” She eased away and went to the press, unlacing her bracers.
“With your sword.” Gabrielle went over to the fireplace and stood next to it, the newly rekindled fire warming her legs as she measured out some herbs for tea. “That was a little funky.”
“And you know, Xe, I just realized those guys from Ithaca heard about this place already.”
“Mm.” Xena unclasped her armor and removed it. “That’s pretty far travel for winter.” She agreed. “Even if they did pick up some details in Therma – we haven’t been back there since.” She turned and regarded her partner, sitting down on the press to remove her boots and knee protectors.
“Too far for that kind of story to get out?” Gabrielle wondered, as she poured boiling water over the herbs, releasing the scent of lemongrass and mint into the air. “About the shrines, I mean. Not about the war. I get that.” She watched Xena pause to think, a frown appearing on her face. “Has there been enough time for people that far to hear about them?”
Xena stood and unlaced her leathers, then pulled them off over her head, shaking them out and draping them over the wooden stand near the wall. She folded her arms over her chest as she turned and faced Gabrielle in the brief, silk underlayer she wore under the armor. “It’s a little odd.” She admitted.
Gabrielle stirred honey into the tea and they went over to the low slung couch and sat down together, spending a few minutes just relaxing with their feet extended towards the fire. “Yeah, it’s a little odd.” She finally said. “I think I’m going to spend some time down in the market tomorrow, asking some questions.”
Xena inhaled the steam from the tea with absent pleasure. “Good idea.” She wiggled her bare toes. “I’ll have my mother ask her staff to listen to whatever’s being said in the inn.”
“Or are we reading too much into it?” Gabrielle wondered. “I mean, it only takes a few merchants to spread things.”
“We haven’t had a few merchants go through here since winter, hon.” Her partner responded. “So how would everyone have heard, so soon?”
“Hm.” Gabrielle eyed her. “It’ll wait for the morning, at any rate.” She touched her cup to Xena’s. “Ready for bedtime, Boo?”
Xena smiled at her. “Been ready all night.” She stood up and extended her hand. “C’mon, mama. Been a good day, and a good festival. Let’s enjoy the night.”
They crossed the cabin floor, it’s wood surface covered in woven mats and went into the newly finished room in the rear, where they’d moved their big bed into.
Here, there were three walls with windows open to the night, and through the open shutters the sounds of drumming, faint but distinct, drifted in from the Amazon village down the mountainside.
There were candles on either side of the bed casting a golden light over the colorful woven quilt on it’s surface, and Gabrielle put her cup down to turn down the covers and expose the fluffy feather filled mattress under it.
Xena removed her underlayer then circled the bed to untie the fastenings of Gabrielle’s Amazon leathers. She paused to nibble the skin on the back of her neck, catching a hint of woodsmoke and the dusky scent of the hide as she slid free of it.
Her skirt followed, and then they were skin to skin, arms wrapped around each other, the heat of that contrasting with the cool breeze coming in the windows.
The trees rustled and added their smell to the air and they kissed, Xena’s hand sliding up to cradle the back of Gabrielle’s neck as they enjoyed a silent few moments of pleasure in each other.
Then they fell sideways into bed, rolling over into the center in unison and stretching out together with simultaneous sighs.
Gabrielle chuckled softly, sliding her hand up along Xena’s ribs and feeling the motion as her partner took a breath and then they were kissing again.
Then she was rolling onto her back and Xena was rolling with her, holding herself up as she let her body brush lightly against Gabrielle’s, one thigh sliding between her partner’s igniting a jolt of passion that made her tense in anticipation.
Her back arched a little, as she felt Xena starting an exploration of her, her skin feeling sensitized to the touch of the breeze as she flushed a bit under the gentle teasing touches that were both utterly familiar and different every time.
Xena was unpredictable that way. She never really knew where it would all start but there never was a doubt where it would end and her body shifted and her breath quickened, wanting the release.
She felt a teasing nip around one nipple, then heard a soft, playful growl and smiled, pulling herself up and wrapping her arms around Xena’s neck to start her own exploration as the little nips moved down her body and her breathing started to quicken.
Xena’s did as well, and then she felt the pressure of her hand on the inside of her thigh and she was gone past thinking as the ache in her guts intensified and she let the events of the night slide past, focusing on the here and now and the increasing sensation that rode over her in a wash of pleasure.
In the distance, wolf song and drums rose.
Xena felt a deep sense of contentment as she luxuriated in the unfamiliar pleasure of sleeping in past the dawn. Outside she could hear birds starting their morning song, and there was no sound at all on the air of drums or any other human activity.
Gabrielle was curled up against her, sound asleep and for a moment she had a fond flashback to the years they’d traveled the world together on her quest for redemption.
She considered that in silence. So here they were now, in completely different lives than any she’d ever imagined back in those days, where creature comforts had meant a stop for the night in an inn rather than sleeping on the ground in the weather.
This was much nicer. Xena smiled. In a little while, she’d get up and they would rummage around for breakfast, then head down to the village and get the girls, rescuing the minders who also, no doubt, were feeling the effects of a long night of partying.
She herself hadn’t drunk that much, and neither had Gabrielle. She’d never been much for hard drinking, and Gabrielle had learned over the years to moderate herself because she was more than aware of how funny Xena found her when she was drunk.
Silly and adorable. Xena let her eyes drift open and she regarded her partner with an affectionate smile, as the dawn light filtered in and outlined both of them.
She could remember a time in their past when she had felt unworthy of what they had. It was hard now for her to even connect with that person she’d been so far had they come and through so much had they passed.
She remembered going through that crossroads, matter of fact. That moment when the shadow of the past had lifted off her shoulders and came to a place where she was just who she was and to Hades with it all.
Hades with it. It had started raining and she’d stood there in the downpour, the water summer warm on her skin as she pictured in her head it rinsing away the mental stain of that guilt.
She remembered standing there, holding her hands at waist level, watching the water run clear off her fingertips and in that moment, in that breath of leaf tinged air changing and becoming almost a different person.
Or perhaps reclaiming a previous version of herself. Hard to tell, really if it was just her imagination or a true balancing of her life’s scales but in the end, it hadn’t really mattered.
“Morning.” Gabrielle’s voice mumbled softly.
“Morning.” Xena responded, still smiling. “Sorry we didn’t get that much sleep.”
“You’re not sorry and neither am I.” Gabrielle chortled. “We can take a nap after lunch.” She pressed a little closer and closed her eyes again.
Nice idea, but it probably wouldn’t happen. There was too much going on. Xena relaxed back into the mattress, enjoying the softness of the down stuffed surface as it cradled her body and the light breeze brushed over her.
But you never knew. Sometimes life surprised you.
Gabrielle whistled softly under her breath as she made her way down the path to the gates of the Amazon village. It was still early, the light from the rising sun was just now making it’s way through the trees and splashing the ground she walked on with shifting patterns.
The air was cool, and she was glad of her cloak but under it she wore again her leathers, acknowledging a comfort in them that brought a faint smile to her face.
She reached the gates and heard a scuffle of boots as the guards hastened to open them for her. “Morning.”
“Morning, your Majesty.” Dosi responded, as she pulled the catches back and got the gate moving. “What a great night last night, huh?”
“Yep.” Gabrielle agreed, as she crossed the threshold and entered the village, already hearing the sounds of activity in the dining hall and laughter.
Several Amazons were standing near the firepit, with large packs on their backs, having a cup of tea and they turned as she approached. “Morning!” Renas greeted her. “We’re heading down to the market. Guessing it’s going to be a good day for it.”
“Nice weather.” Gabrielle joined them, leaning on her staff as one of the warriors handed her a cup of tea. “Thanks.”
“We heard it’s full up.” Renas went on. “Glad we went down and got things set up in the stalls yesterday.”
Gabrielle studied the older woman for a brief moment, remembering a time not so long ago when she’d been one of the group working to overturn her right and replace her.
Now her face held a contented expression, and all that undercurrent of agitation was gone.
Funny. “That’s what I heard too.” She agreed. “One of the militia was up and briefed Xena this morning. Said it’s going to be crowded.” She said. “She went down to check it out.”
“Good for sales.” Renas didn’t look at all disturbed. “And we can come back here after.” She grinned. “We don’t have to stay down there like the rest of them.”
“True.” Her queen smiled back. “Let me go make sure my kids haven’t caused too much trouble. Good luck!”
The group waved, and started off, already talking. Paladia was with them, her pack the largest as her pictures were bulky.
She caught Gabrielle’s eye as they were moving past, and winked, and Gabrielle lifted her staff in acknowledgement.
Also funny how that had turned out. She stood there, finishing her tea as another group of Amazons, younger women moved past towards the dining hall and she recognized two of the new juniors with them, proud in their new leathers, her tokens fastened firmly on the shoulders of them.
They were the two the teachers had said maybe weren’t made for Amazons, she realized. But looking at their faces, happy and excited to be in the group she wondered. “We’ll see I guess.”
She watched all of them as they spotted her, evaluating their body posture and expressions with a knowledgeable bardic eye and smiled as they came over. “Good morning!”
“Good morning your Majesty!” A tall gangly chestnut haired youngster answered back for them. “That was a great festival last night!”
“We had the best time.” Her shorter, dark haired companion agreed. “The ceremonies were amazing.”
“We did.” One of the new juniors held up her hand, like the others covered still in a bandage. “It was awesome. I was so glad we graduated and could go.”
“Me too.” The other new Amazon nodded.
Gabrielle heard a dog bark, and recognized the timbre. “Glad everyone had a good time. We did too.” She half turned and spotted two four legged and two two legged figures racing towards her. “Ah, my family found me.” She observed. “Go on to breakfast, people. See you inside.”
The group trotted on, glancing behind them and smiling as they disappeared into the hall.
“Mama!” Dori and Cari were still in their little Amazon outfits, and they bounded to a halt and then danced around her as she knelt. “We had fun!”
She returned their hugs. “I bet you did.” She ruffled the short, soft fur on the round headed dog’s heads as they licked her knee in solemn greeting. “Did you play games?”
Dori nodded, and Cari pulled something out of her tiny belt pouch and showed it. “I found all the hiding things, mama and I got this!”
Gabrielle examined the small, carved figure, a pony, with due solemnity. “That’s really pretty.” She handed it back. “Do you know who made that, Cari?”
Both girls shook their head.
“Xena made that.” Gabrielle informed them. “Like the toys you have back at our house.”
Cari’s eyes lit up. “She do?”
“Boo makes everyting.” Dori advised her. “All the aminals cause she loves aminals.”
“Whoa!” Cari put the pony back in her bag. “Yay.”
Gabrielle chuckled. “Lets go have some breakfast kiddos.” She stood up. “Then we can go down to the town and you can see all your cousins.”
“Lolo and Ly.” Dori agreed. “We’ll have fun.”
“And another cousin. You remember Gabriel?” Her mother asked, as they started towards the hall. “Maybe you were too little to remember, Dor.” She pushed the dining hall door open and they entered, to a chorus of greetings.
“Over here.” Ephiny called out, waving her over to the senior table at the front of the hall, where there were already platters and jugs present. “I think we have enough.” She added with a grin as her queen arrived with her tiny entourage.
“Hey.” Gabrielle got the kids sorted out and sat down to accept a mug of cider Pony poured for her. “I’m hearing we had a very successful event.”
“Oh yeah.” Pony agreed, sitting back down and pushing a platter of flat biscuits, fruit and cheese at her. “It was crazy here last night.”
“It was.” Ephiny leaned back in her chair, the senior table featuring well made wooden ones with arms and a back where the rest of the room had benches. “I’m sure your other half is hearing about it right now since we invited a bunch of Benny’s buddies back up.”
“Ahh.” Gabrielle handed Dori a small cup of juice. “After the altar ceremony that doesn’t surprise me.” She eyed her two companions, who lifted cups in a toasting motion. “Lila was asking me about that when I walked her back to the inn.”
“As in how we got all the kids.” Gabrielle sat down and picked up a biscuit.
“Since we all can’t do it like you did?” Ephiny snickered at her queen’s rolled eyes. “Hey you know we heard down in the market that we could? I guess someone heard about Dori and figured that was just how it happened with Amazons.”
Gabrielle paused in mid motion and stared at her.
Ephiny returned an exaggerated shrug and pointed at Dori.
“Mm.” Gabrielle’s lips quirked a little in acknowledgement. “Yeah, I heard someone asking Toris about her down at the inn. Thought she was his.” She sat down and leaned back with her cup of cider. “I think he enjoys telling people we’re her parents.”
“Gran says he does.” Pony spoke up. “For the shock value, yeah?”
“That got us in trouble in Athens.” Gabrielle recalled. “The games committee thought she was a guy.”
Pony laughed. “I remember.”
“Me too.” Ephiny grinned.
Gabrielle sighed and chewed her biscuit, taking sips of her cider to wash the pastry down, keeping one eye on the two girls and their messy dissection of fruit next to her, stifling a yawn as she watched the windows in the hall be swung open to let the cool air in.
“Everyone’s going down for the market.” Ephiny commented to her. “You going to do the bard thing tonight?”
Gabrielle considered the question. “They probably have more than enough entertainment.” She demurred. “We’ll see.”
“Mama, can we go now?” Dori had finished her plate and was now tapping the table with her hands impatiently. “Want to go see the horses.”
Gabrielle drained her cup and stood. “Sounds like a plan, Doriana. Let’s go.” She reached behind her seat and took up her staff, surprising her offspring who scrambled to join her not expecting such a quick agreement. “See you all down the hill.”
“Be down shortly.” Ephiny agreed. “Need to go feed the moppet and get some dinars to spend.” She waved as Gabrielle led her small posse towards the entrance. “Should be another fun day.”
“Should be.” Pony agreed easily. “Sorta common now.”
Ephiny smiled, and lifted her glass. “We earned it.”
Xena adjusted a bit of her shoulder armor as she made her way through the quiet lanes of the town, too early yet for the bustle to have started.
There was also, she acknowledged, a certain amount of sleeping in as well, everyone seeming to have enjoyed the festivities the night before.
She strolled between the trees, listening to the leaves rustling over her head, twitching her body a little to better settle the sword in its sheath on her back, taking a deep breath of the air, and deciding there might be a little rain on it.
She bypassed the inn, and headed down the opposite path that would take her down to the riverfront and the militia barracks that lined it.
She could hear the ting of a hammer beating metal, and the sound of water being pumped from the well. As she cleared the line of trees that hid the long, low buildings from the upper town she was greeted by the watch, two young soldiers who smiled on seeing her.
Kids, boys just on the verge of manhood who were local and sons of farmers who still helped with the harvest and the animals, but were getting a martial skill set and were proud of the hardened leather surcoats they wore.
“Morning.” Xena understood the comfort they showed in the garb and the weapons they were wearing, which the watch wore only when on duty.
“Morning, Xena.” The younger of the two responded. “Got a full house cross the river.”
“So I heard.” Xena passed through the hedge lined gates and veered over to the shaded corral that was today filled with horses. She smiled on seeing them, and they responding on seeing her by picking their heads up from cropping the grass and ambling over.
All geldings or mares in the lot, trained animals who provided rides for the watch, and had come with them on their last campaign. Thick, shaggy coats that were now shedding and she spent a moment combing her fingers through their various manes as they sniffed hopefully at her belt pouch for treats.
She loved horses, and they knew it. Each lifted a soft, whiskered nose to her and one rested his chin on her shoulder, breathing into her ear as she fished out a handful of cut carrots to feed them and they nibbled them from the palm of her hand.
Smiling, she lifted her head and glanced out over their backs, spotting the Arabian stallion she’d conscripted in the next paddock, watching her, his exquisitely shaped ears pricked in her direction. “Ah, let’s go see our new boy.”
She eased between the animals and went to the fence that separated the paddocks, putting a hand on the top rail and vaulting over into the other space easily. The stallion eyed her warily but extended a nose to her hand as she approached him.
One of the grooms was standing near the gate, leaning on it. “Tis a beauty, Xena.”
“He is.” She offered him a bit of carrot, and he nibbled it, crunching the vegetable and sniffing after more as she ran her hands over his neck and back, then down his legs. “Good stock.”
“Feller what brought him caused a mix up last night.” The groom told her. “Got hisself a whack or two.”
Xena looked up at him. “Drunk?”
“No.” The groom shook his head. “Not so you could tell anyhow. Just a grumpy kind.” He responded. “Take offense at any eye on him.”
Yeah, Corman had seemed that type. “Did the guard come back from the pass?”
“Didn’t see nor hear of em.” The groom said. “Might take a bit, yeah? Looking round like you said.”
Xena gave the horse a kiss on his nose. “Better go see what the news is.” She vaulted over the far side railing and dusted her hands off, moving past the groom and heading for the main building of the militia barracks.
There were a dozen soldiers in the work area at the front, and she spotted one of her captains standing arms folded talking to two or three others. “Marak.”
“A good morning, Xena.” The militia captain said. “Word on the river is we have more people coming.” He glanced past her. “But we’re out of space in the mart. I figured we could set them up camping along the banks other side.”
“Least two dozen wagons.” One of the listening soldiers said. “I talked to Benny before. Said not to let them up into the main area, too many folks.”
Xena nodded. “Good idea. Too many people crowding in means no good for anyone.” She said. “But I want to talk to them.” She decided. “Let me go across the bridge.” She turned and started back along the river and Marak came with her.
“Good festival so far though.” Xena commented.
“Aye.” Marak agreed, with a grin. “Had a bunch of us up to the village last night.” He advised her. “Invited like.”
“Ah.” His commander blinked a little in surprise. “Big party huh?”
He scratched his nose and eyed her sideways and a clue arrived to clout her on the side of the head with a thump. “Ah.” Xena said, with a brief grin. “They wanted you in bed.”
“Aye.” Marak agreed. “Was a fine time, yeah?”
“When I came here, first, I didn’t care so much for the Amazons.” Marak said, in a straightforward kind of way. “They grow on ya, though.”
Gabrielle found the kids, predictably, in the barn. “Hey guys.” She greeted Gabriel, Solon and Lyceus, who were busy watching the newest lamb arrival. “Oh, look Dor. Our friend from yesterday.”
“Auntie Gabrielle!” Gabriel came over to give her a hug. “Hi!”
Her namesake was a well grown eight year old, with his father’s blond hair framing his mother’s face and pale hazel eyes that seemed almost gold in the sunlight coming in the big window.
“Hey kiddo.” Gabrielle returned the hug. “What are you guys up to?”
The dogs had gone over and were sniffing the sheep, causing the ewes to watch them warily. Dori and Cari went over to Rusty’s stall, and were inside with the pony and there was a wooden plate nearby, now empty but with crumbs scattered all over it.
“Gonna start the games soon.” Solon advised her. “We’re gonna win em, right Ly?”
“Yes.” His twin agreed firmly. “Daddy said so.”
Both boys had new belts on, and were conspicuously wearing their new knives, secured in equally new sheaths. Gabriel also had a small knife, and he was wearing a leather bracelet around one wrist.
“Auntie Gabrielle, will you tell us a story?” Gabriel asked. “I didn’t hear any of your stories for a long time!”
Despite her busy schedule, Gabrielle found herself unable to resist the request, and she settled down in the straw as Dori and Cari came running out to get a good seat to listen. “Okay.” She said. “Lets see, what kind of story is good for a nice spring morning.”
“Cow.” Dori responded instantly.
“Next time, honey.” Gabrielle patted her knee. “How about I tell you all a story about Argo, and how smart she is?”
“Argo’s pretty.” Lyceus pulled his legs up crossed under him and leaned his elbows on his knees. “And smart!”
Argo was, without a doubt, both pretty and smart and now the mare, hearing her name called, came to the front of her stall and put her head over the rope front of it, regarding them with a kind, yet skeptical eye.
“Yes you are, madam.” Gabrielle addressed her. “When we’re done hearing about how wonderful you are, I’ll take you out to the paddock. How’s that?”
Argo extended her neck a little, flaring her nostrils. Gabrielle chuckled, then fished out a bit of carrot from her bag and handed it over, watching indulgently as the mare crunched the treat.
Rusty whickered in protest, his shaggy ears flip flopping over as he shook his head until Gabrielle found him a bit of carrot too.
Then she turned back around and settled herself in the straw, with the five children across from her and four round headed dogs curled up nearby.
“So once upon a time there was a horse named Argo…”
Xena paused at the edge of the market square to regard the crowd, her fine, dark eyebrows edging up towards her hairline. “Packed.”
“Aye.” Marak agreed. “Tis that.” He strolled along at her side as she walked on, his head roughly even with hers as they went between the first set of stalls, already open and with shoppers picking over their wares.
Xena had gotten her fill the day before, but she paused next to the Amazons large area, which was full of customers looking over the jewelry, hides, and other crafts along with Paladia’s drawings. “Morning.”
“Morning, Xena.” Renas was seated on a wooden stool, with trays of her hammered jewelry next to her. “What a crowd.”
“What a crowd.” Xena repeated, glancing around. She took a step to one side to get out of the way of a half dozen strangers, and then Marak eased between them and her, with an easy smile that belied the hand resting on his knife hilt.
There were already gaps in the trays, and one of the strangers was holding a set of rabbit pelts that were beautifully tanned and bargaining for them.
“Xena.” Marak made a small jerking motion with his chin. “Watch just come in.”
“Ah.” Xena circled the Amazons’ central area and slid between the crowd around the baker’s tent as she saw the six riders trot in single file, heading in her direction as they spotted her.
Marak came to her heels and cleared his throat. “Good to see what’s the story there in the pass.”
“Ho, Xena.” The squad leader slid down off the tall shoulder of the sorrel mare he was riding. “We found the spot, sure nough.” He fished something out of his saddle bag and showed her. “Spot, we saw the scat, and these were around, to stake em out.”
Xena took the iron stake and inspected it. “Looks like it.” She agreed. “What else?”
“Nothing there.” The man said, with a faint shrug. “Like the kid said, Xena. We checked a day both sides, looked for boots, hunting, wagons.. nothing.”
Xena handed the spike back to him. “Someone had to stake them out there.” She pointed out. “It can’t have been no one at all.”
“Yep that’s true, Genr’l.” Marak agreed. “Some man’s hand made them.” He pointed at the spike. “And someone tied the horses to em. Cant have done it themselves, eh Joah?”
“True enough.” Joah nodded. “But we couldn’t find em, or sign of em. They might have come down through the pass though, and got to the river.”
Xena nodded thoughtfully. “At the bend there.”
“Aye.” Joah nodded again. “Coulda gone for water there, and fallen in, y’know. It’s running pretty fast, but you saw that yourself, Genr’l, when you were in it.”
“True.” She said, with a sigh. “But now I’m gonna have to pay that kid’s price.” She put her hands on her hips. “Damn it.” She traded mildly amused looks with her soldiers, all them knowing, her the most that at a few words of hers they would spin a tale the other direction, and lie to all and sundry about it.
Xena smiled faintly. Then she gave the horse a pat on the shoulder. “Get them cleaned up.” She said. “Let’s see what else is going on here before I go find the brat.”
She continued on down the long side of the market, which was now extending further than it ever had along the riverside past the barge dock, past the watch shelter, hastily thrown up wooden pestles and makeshift coverings backed by wagon after wagon.
Half again as many merchants as there had been when she’d been down here shopping just yesterday. Xena whistled a little under her breath, walking over to one of the last of the stalls, seeing a young boy carrying an armful of bridles and halters.
Marak was still with her, and they stood together as the boy set the armful down, glancing up at them and giving them a brief smile. “Da’ll be out inna bit.”
“Thanks.” Xena picked up one of the bridles and turned it over in knowledgeable hands. The hide was well tanned, and had rolled and woven edges and she examined the brass rings that held it together wthi a little nod of her head.
“Nice.” Marak commented.
“Nice.” Xena agreed, glancing up as the crafter arrived, with a basket in his hands. “You do this?”
The man, a short, stocky individual with grizzled amber hair and a close clipped beard nodded. “I did.” He said. “You interested?” He set the basket down and faced her squarely, letting his hands rest on the trestle table in front of his wagon.
“Need four of em.” Xena said, briskly.
“Xena.” Marak touched her arm, and then pointed back down the way they’d come. “Seems that kid’s still causing us trouble.”
Sure enough, the horse trader was in front of one of the stalls, arguing with the merchant there, as two of her militia watched warily.
“What the Hades is it with this kid?” Xena wondered.
“Troublemaker.” Marek stated, succinctly. “Too young.”
With a sigh, Xena put the bridle down, and glanced at the crafter. “Hang onto these for me willya?”
The merchant studied her, and his eyes suddenly widened a little, the mental putting of two and two together almost visible in the misty morning air. “I will, lady.” He nodded eagerly. “I will put my best work aside for you.”
Marak gave him an approving nod, and then he followed at Xena’s heels as she headed towards the altercation which was now getting louder.
The kid had pulled out his knife again and was brandishing it, and the two militia had started in his direction seeing their commander approaching.
Corman saw her from the corner of his eye and he turned fully to face her. “You again?”
Xena didn’t answer or hesitate, she came within range and lashed out with a roundhouse kick that hit his knife hand and sent the weapon flying, one of her men trotting under it alertly and plucking it out of the air.
“Hey! Ow!” Corman let out a yell of outrage, muffled a moment later when Xena’s fist came across with all the force and momentum of her motion and he went flying onto his back on the dew damp ground with a rattling thump.
The militia pulled back and waited, arms crossed over chests, or resting at their sides, well used to their leader kicking asses in all directions and content to stand by and watch.
But Xena put her own fists now on her hips and waited, as the kid scrambled up to his feet. “What’s wrong with you?” She asked, bluntly. “You got nothing better to do than make trouble with everyone?”
“What’s wrong with you?” He shot back. “You think you’re in charge of everything here?”
“Yes.” Xena replied in a mild tone. “I am in charge of everything here.” She added. “You’re a guest in my town, and you’re bothering other guests, merchants and my army.”
He studied her a moment in silence, his head rearing back in proud insolence. “Where I come from, no man, nor certainly no women is my master. So take your town and stuff it up your behind.”
Xena lifted her hand to stop the forward motion of a half dozen militia closing in on the little brat from behind. Then she moved, in that liquid way that came with a lifetime of her being what she was. She grabbed the kid by his belt and his throat and put him up against one of the stall dividers, holding him there.
He sucked in a breath in shock and she made it his last, closing the fingers of her hand on his windpipe and feeling it crumple in her grip.
He started struggling, and reached out to grab at her, but her arms were longer than his were and he could only scrabble at her collarbone with his fingertips.
She stared at him in silence, her eyes boring into his as he struggled to breath and couldn’t, his face growing redder and redder as he kicked out and tried to kick her.
She booted him in the groin.
His tongue emerged, and snot ran from his nose, and still she held him there, until his eyes finally came back to meet hers and she saw the fear there, realization percolating through the animal brain that he was dying.
Her soldiers stood watching, two of them nodding a little in approval.
Xena let her fingers relax and he started roughly gasping, sucking air into his lungs. “You’re not where you come from.” She stated. “Here, it’s my rules.”
She was aware of the watching merchants, and the watching townfolk and in the far off peripheral of her vision she caught sight of Cait with her knife drawn and two other Amazons standing by. “The only reason you’re not dead is because I made a deal with you.”
Xena released him, and he fell to his knees when his knees would not hold him, collapsing under his weight as he reeled backwards, his hands scrabbling for a grip on the stall on either side. He then drew his hands to his chest and rubbed his fingers together.
They were blue, and twitching.
“So if you want your deal, you want to learn how to train horses? Keep a civil tongue in your mouth.” Xena continued. “That was your only warning. Next time I’ll kill you.”
He looked up at her, and now there was doubt in his expression that hadn’t been there before, and his eyes darted furtively to either side, seeing the flat, unsympathetic looks from everyone surrounding their little tableau.
He looked back up at Xena, at those very cold ice blue eyes staring at him. His throat was red and bruising, his head was pounding with pain and for a moment he focused on the hands now folded in front of her.
Large, powerful hands, with prominent knuckles, one circled with glinting metal, and heavy, strong wrists wrapped in the developed muscles of someone who fought.
Weapons in their own right, and he could still feel the pain in his throat and the panic of knowing he had been close to death at those hands where she hadn’t even bothered to draw a blade. “All right then.” He rasped, painfully. “Your rules.”
“Good.” Xena folded her arms over her chest. “Be at the racing paddock in one candlemark.” She turned and signaled the soldiers, who eased past her and surrounded the kid, but left him to stand on his own. “And don’t give my troops a hard time.”
Cait came up next to her. “Bit of a nuisance.” She remarked. “But it’s a good thing you did that, Xena, he was playing about with the tribe just earlier.” She added. “Thinks he’s a hot attraction.”
Xena regarded her skeptically.
“Offered to show the new juniors what he had in his leggings.”
“Jackass.” Xena turned her back to the scene and shook her head. “Now where was I?”
“Bridles, genr’l?” Marak suggested, arriving on the other side of her. “And the boys have gotten some pocket sandwiches. Interested?”
“Yes, I am.” Xena agreed. “Lets hope the rest of the day is more entertaining.”
“Watching his eyes pop out was quite entertaining, I thought.” Cait said.
Marak chuckled in agreement.
“Stay right here for a minute madam.” Gabrielle hooked Argo’s reins over the post on the side of the inn. “I just need to talk to your grandma.”
Argo gave her a tolerant look, then lowered her head to nibble on the grass poking out of the edge of Cyrene’s garden.
Gabrielle slipped into the back door of the inn kitchen, glad to find Cyrene at the worktable sorting some roots. “Morning.” She went over to her mother in law’s side and took a seat across from her. “How’d it go last night?”
“Good business.” Cyrene cut the root into several pieces and tossed it into her pot. “Busy as Hades until well after midnight here, matter of fact. I sold out of pretty much everything.” She glanced up at Gabrielle. “How about by you?”
“Went fine.” Gabrielle said. “We had some pilgrims show up right in the middle of everything – from Ithaca.”
Cyrene’s brows rose. “Ithaca! That’s a long way.” She paused. “Wait, yes, they came up here very late last night. Offered me gold to give them space, but I hadn’t any.” She set her knife down and wiped her hands. “They went back down across the river, I think. Said they’d camp.”
“They had some offerings to Ares.” Gabrielle said. “They said they’d heard about the shrines all the way back home.”
Cyrene stared at her. “In Ithaca?” She said, in an astonished tone. “We just built the damn things.”
“That’s a little odd.” Cyrene sat back and folded her arms. “I heard them talking about the war with Sparta, too.”
“They landed at Therma.”
“Oh, well that explains that.” The innkeeper shrugged a little. “But they said they heard about the shrines before that? We hardly had anyone through here the winter. How’d word get that far?”
“Exactly what Xe and I were wondering.” Gabrielle said. “So I wanted to talk to them a little, and see what I could find out about it.” She got up and went over to the night hearth, which had a small pot of odds and ends soup simmering light on it. “You know?”
“Agreed.” Cyrene got up and handed her a small wooden bowl. “Have you seen the market? Stretching halfway down the river road.”
Gabrielle was sipping soup directly from the bowl. She looked at Cyrene over the edge of it. “And we thought it might be lightly attended.”
Cyrene smiled. “We had to get lucky sometime, Gabrielle. It’s been a rough couple of years.” She took some soup herself and settled onto one of the nearby stools. “Xena went across there to see whats up.”
“And I better as well.” Gabrielle rinsed her soup bowl out and set it down on the stone and wood countertop. “If Lila’s looking for Gabriel he’s in the barn with the rest of the kids.”
Cyrene smiled. “Everyone else is still sleeping. Must have been quite the party.” She said. “I’ll keep an eye on them until the games start.”
Gabrielle gave her a thumbs up, then she retrieved her staff from the corner and headed out the door.