A Change of Seasons
There was a large tree at the back of the market and around that they had set trestle tables and benches as a common area for the sellers and buyers to sit down and enjoy a mug or a plate.
A nice breeze was coming in off the river and already people were sitting together, and a sitar player had mounted the nearby stage and was tuning himself up.
Xena strolled past the edge of the stage, mug in one hand and picked a table to perch on, casually propping one boot up on a chair as she studied the crowd.
The sun was filtering through the leaves and she could feel the warmth between her shoulderblades as she sipped the slightly effervescent pear juice from the mug, observing Corman trudging through the market heading for the horse paddocks, two of her men casually trailing him.
The sitar player started a tune, a complicated set of chords and plucking that rang on the air and she sat and enjoyed it, sensing no real discord in the crowd and having heard nothing to speak of from any of the visitors.
The Ithacans had camped at the riverside, along the wagons and stake outs from the vendors. She could see their pennant in motion, and the three sturdy tents they’d put up and as she watched, one of them emerged rubbing his eyes, one hand covered in a bandage.
So they had chosen to copy the Amazons. Xena sniffed reflectively. She wondered how many others had done the same, then she spotted Bennu approaching and waited to ask him.
“Morning, Xena.” He sat down next to her. “Men wanted me to ask you a question like.”
Bennu cleared his throat a little. “No.. ah.” He made a small face. “It’s about last night, yeah? Everyone had a grand time and all.”
“Sure.” Xena repeated. “Everyone had a grand time. I heard from the tribe you all were welcome guests, and everyone’s grateful to you in particular.”
Bennu eyed her. “Aye.” He said. “What happens if there’s.. ah, if the ladies get a child?”
Ah. “Ah.” Xena made an audible reflection of her mental grunt. “The tradition in the Amazons is that all children belong to the tribe, regardless of how they’re got.” She explained. “No obligation from you.”
Bennu considered that, with a slight frown. “No choice in it?”
It caught Xena a little by surprise, since she was expecting relief. “No.” She answered after a brief pause. “Well, if the child’s a boy, maybe, since they can’t stay in the village past puberty.” She amended. “Why?”
“Men were asking.” Bennu said. “Most of em, came from towns yeah?” He glanced sideways at her. “Some of em, like the little ones.” He explained. “So I can tell em.”
“Tell em if they want kids, marry someone and have them.” Xena said, in a practical tone. “Or don’t marry someone and have them, but don’t ask the Amazons for theirs.”
Xena stood up. “C’mon. I’ve got to give a lesson to that young jackass.” She pointed to the paddock. “The guard came back from the pass, and didn’t find anything.”
They walked together along the edge of the market, and then through the cluster of stalls busy with people and chatter. There were a lot of customers around the Amazons and Xena was aware of the pause and the attention she drew as she went past.
“Horses had to come from somewhere.” Bennu said, as they passed the baker, the sweet scent of pastry wafting in the air past them. “Nice animals, them.” He indicated the four horses, who were in one of the side paddocks near the raceway.
“They are.” Xena paused to remove her cloak, and drape it over the fence post before she put her hand on the top rail and vaulted over it. “Really nice.” She landed and straightened up, making the horses inside lift their heads from the rich grass to study her.
The stallion flared his nostrils, then stepped lightly over to where she was standing, apparently remembering her from the previous day. She waited for him to approach, and then she gave him a scratch behind the ears as he lifted his head so his dark, liquid eye was even with hers. “Hey buddy.”
The horse snuffled her shoulder, and Xena fished in her belt pouch and came up with a bit of carrot, which she offered him from the palm of her hand.
He nibbled it without hesitation, and she moved a bit closer, touching his head, and making that connection, that ethereal silent understanding she had always had with these beasts since she’d been very young.
The other three, all mares, came closer, eyeing her hopefully as they gathered around in curiosity.
Past them, Xena could see Corman standing, watching her. She produced bits of root for the rest of the horses, pausing to enjoy the feel of their whiskers on her fingertips before she edged between then and motion him inside. “C’mon.”
He had bruises on his face, and she could see the marks on his neck from her hands as he climbed over the railing and stood just inside it. “Put their halters on.” He said. “They bite.”
Xena steeled herself to do something very unnatural to her, marshalling her often scant patience to deal with this rotten skanky kid. “The first thing you have to do if you want to train horses is learn not to be afraid of them.”
Corman snorted softly.
“They smell it.” Xena responded, in a mild tone. ‘They know when you’re afraid and they’ll take advantage of that.” She gently lifted the lips of the still attentive stallion, examining his teeth and tapping his gums while he blinked benignly at her. “Good boy.”
Corman edged cautiously around to get a better look at what she was doing.
“So yes, they bite.” Xena gently stroked the stallions nose, and produced another bit of carrot for him. “The key is making them not want to.”
Moving around to his side she vaulted onto his back and settled her knees, letting her hands rest on either side of the stallion’s neck as he shifted under her. For a moment, he felt like he was going to buck, but then he shook his head and then put his head down to pull up a mouthful of grass.
“So.” Xena relaxed. “Get closer to that one and make friends with her.”
Corman looked at her. “Animals work for me. I don’t want to be their friend.”
Xena lifted her hands and then put them back down. “Switch to oxen then. They’re a lot more tolerant to stupidity.” She said. “You’ll never make a horse trainer.”
A group of watchers had gathered on the outside of the corral, watching with mild interest. Some had mugs, all had bags over their shoulder from the market.
From the other, larger paddock, there was motion as horse owners went in to prepare their animals for the races that were being set up on the track down the riverside. Xena could see the herd there part momentarily, and she caught sight of both Argo and Rusty amidst the rest.
Which meant… ah. Leaning against a tree just inside the paddock fence was a familiar figure, arms crossed, watching her. Xena lifted her hand in a wave, and she could just see the smile on Gabrielle’s face.
“I have known trainers where I come from who make no such pact with their beasts.” Corman stated. “My father had horses. He beat them to get them to do what he willed.”
Xena swung one leg over the horses neck and sat sideways on his back, her hands clasped in front of her. “You asked me how I did this.” She indicated the relaxed posture of the animal, who was cropping grass with a complete lack of concern for the figure seated on top of him. “I don’t beat them. I make them want to do things for me.”
Corman slowly, cautiously approached her, moving around the mares who eyed him warily. He stopped just out of her reach, and seeing that made Xena smile. “They are beasts.” He remarked. “So I do not understand what you are saying here. I know not of it.”
Xena slid off the stallions back and landed lightly on her feet, studying the figure facing her. “Just because they’re not men, doesn’t mean they don’t understand what’s going on.” She turned her head and let out a whistle sequence.
In the next paddock, Argo lifted her head and finished chewing, then she first trotted and then cantered towards the post fence, jumping over it and pushing her way through the other horses to come to Xena’s side. “This is Argo.”
Argo butted her in the chest. Xena scrubbed her ears and gave her a kiss on the nose. “She’s trained to fight with me in battle, just like her son over there.” She said. “But no matter how much training I gave her, she wouldn’t face swords and other horses on my behalf if she didn’t want to.”
Corman edged closer and inspected the mare, who turned her head and regarded him with one dark eye. “Is that really true?” He asked. “I was taught differently. My father, he raced horses, see? They ran when he told them to, nothing fancy.”
Xena put her arm over Argo’s neck. “Racing is just a game.”
“Not that it isn’t fun, but it’s a game.” Xena said. “But you still get something more from a horse if they want to do well for you.” She indicated the horse. “Put your hand up to her nose.”
Warily, Corman lifted one hand and complied, turning his hand over as the mare sniffed his skin.
Argo tilted her head to one side slightly with a skeptical expression.
“She knows you’re scared of her.” Xena said. “See her ears? Tilting back?”
“I’m not afraid of her.” Corman objected.
Xena made a subtle sign and Argo arched her neck and bared her teeth, sending Corman scurrying away with a yelp and making Xena chuckle in response. “By the way.” She said. “Leave the Amazons alone if you don’t want to get your hands cut off.”
He paused, his face flushed with embarrassment. “I did nothing to them. Just passed the time of day. Is that against your rules as well?”
“Not my rules.” Xena pondered giving up on this apparently useless task. “They don’t appreciate being solicited. I won’t cut your hands off they will.” Past the fence she could see the races being set up, and she realized she’d rather watch Dori in her first one than continue to muck around with this jackass.
“Not always. I bedded one once before.” Corman said. “Came after me in fact, wanted to do it.” He shrugged. “Figured maybe some there would be the same. Didn’t mean it as an insult.”
Xena regarded him. It could have been, she thought. He was well favored, young and energetic, the kind of callow kid the Amazons did sometimes pick to make a child with. “Just letting you know.” She said. “Now, you want a lesson on how to do this?”
He looked uncertain, then he nodded his head and came closer again. “All right.” He agreed. “Go on then, show me your tricks. You got that one to make that face, didn’t you then?”
He had a nutty courage, Xena had to admit. “Half a candlemark then. I’ve got some races to watch. My kid’s in em.” She turned Argo around and motioned him closer. “Lets start with the basics.”
Corman rolled his eyes, then started, as Argo blew saliva at him, spattering his face. “Faugh!” He jumped back. “The beast did that on purpose!”
Xena nodded. “She did. She knows you’re dissing her.” She gently tweaked Argo’s ear. “Here.’ She fished in her pouch and held out a bit of carrot. “Put that on your hand and give it to her.”
For a long moment, she thought he was going to refuse. The other horses were clustered around, and were eying her fingers in anticipation, probably hoping he would.
But in the end he took the piece of vegetable and offered it gingerly to Argo, who tilted her head and regarded him with a suspicious eye before she gently nibbled it from his fingers, crunching it with a benign expression.
“It really works.” Gabrielle eased between the Arabian horses and came to Xena’s side, putting an arm around her partner’s back. “Right madam?” She held out her hand with a bit of hardened honey in it and Argo immediately scooped it up, nosing around to see if she had more.
“Races are about to start.” Gabrielle said. “Can you put this on hold and watch our baby ride?”
Xena looked over her shoulder and saw the horses lining up. “Thought we had more time.” She said. “Yeah, let’s go watch.” She turned and headed over to the fencepost, with Argo right behind her and they all ended up near the gate.
Gabrielle opened it, and gestured them all through, and shut the gate afterward to keep the four other horses from following.
They came up to the race course and found fifteen kids and ponies getting ready to run, most from the town, but three from the village, and even two from the merchants visiting them for the market. The ponies were all different sizes and colors, and the children were having issues as they investigated each other, small noses flaring and ears moving as they clustered into a group.
Save one. Dori sat on Rusty’s back on one end of the line of them, her shaggy chestnut mount chewing a mouthful of grass as they waited.
His rider was relaxed in her saddle, the reins held in one small hand, as she talked to Solon and Lyceus next to her on their own ponies.
“Look at her.” Gabrielle smiled.
Corman was watching them. “The dark haired lass, yeah?” He said. “That one?”
“That one.” Xena agreed. “That’s our kid.”
Dori spotted them and waved, and both her parents waved back, and then they were getting all the ponies ready and the race master held up a bright red cloth in one hand.
Dori shifted forward and leaned over Rusty’s neck, watching the cloth intently until it dropped. Then she urged Rusty forward and let out a yell, keeping her hands in his reins on his neck as he pelted down the riverside towards the end of the raceway.
“Rides just like you.” Gabrielle remarked. “Luckily for her.” She added, looking up to see the grin on Xena’s face. “I am pretty sure I’d have fallen off on my ass by now at that age.”
All the kids wanted to win. But Dori was totally focused on the finish, ignoring the rest of the field and the yelling of the parents on either side. Rusty had a good pace on him, and inch by inch he edged into the front ranks, his small hooves sending bits of spring grass to either side.
Her two dark haired cousins were at her heels, on two rough coated bay ponies, and Dori, maybe sensing their presence, leaned over Rusty’s neck and called to him, his ears flicking back to hear her.
Argo let out a whinny, and Iolaus answered her, the golden stallion rearing up a little in the big paddock as though trying to get a better look, and the rest of the horses there moved aside to get out of his way.
“What’s that one doing?” Corman asked.
“Adoptive parents.” Gabrielle explained. “They’re stabled together.”
The ponies came to the finish and it was Rusty by a nose, literally, the watching Amazons letting out a yell of approval as she sent the pony through the finish line and then got him slowed down. Cait and Paladia were jogging down to the end clapping, and Cari was jumping up and down as well, from where she was waiting at the finish.
“Nice.” Xena started forward. “Lets go congratulate her.”
Corman trailed after them, awkwardly, getting out of Argo’s way. “What are these all, magical beasts?” He murmured. “Nutty!”
“Mama did you see?” Dori held up her prize, a copper cup with a horse head hammered into one side. “Rusty did gooooood!”
Gabrielle went down on one knee and hugged her. “I sure did, honey. What a great job you did!”
“Great job.” Xena agreed, giving Rusty a scratch behind the ears, as Argo came over and nudged him with her nose.
Cari was on the other side of the pony and she patted him on the shoulder. “Good horsie!”
Rusty appeared benignly gratified by all this attention, and his ears pricked up as Dori retrieved a bit of apple from her small belt pouch and offered it to him.
He scarfed it at once and waggled his ears, and they all turned as the racing master started setting up for the second race, this one for older kids and yearling horses.
The young animals were all slightly distracted, and many were eyeing Xena as they recognized their favorite trainer.
“Hon, let’s get back to the other side before they all start following you.” Gabrielle pointed. “Let’s go, madam.” She nudged Argo, and they walked together to the sidelines.
Dori jumped onto Rusty’s back and pulled Cari up behind her, and they trotted past, heading for the food stalls set up at the edge of the track. “They gots sweet nuts.” She said to her friend. “Rusty likes them too.”
Corman had been walking in silence near them. “You treat these beasts like they were men.” He commented, but in a mild voice. “And speak to them as if they understood all the words you were saying.”
Xena had her arm over Argo’s neck. “Not really.” She said. “We treat them as friends, and they do understand some of what we say. They know signals and because they’re herd animals, they take their cues from more dominant members.”
“Which would be us.” Gabrielle said. “Or at least, her.” She smiled in wry acknowledgement. “I wasn’t raised with horses. My family raised sheep. I’ve always been amazed at how much Argo understands about what’s going on. She really is smart.”
Argo blew in her ear in a slobbery horselike way.
“See?” Gabrielle wiped the side of her face. “She totally knows I was saying nice things about her and that’s her way of letting me know she knows.”
“I should try that sometime.” Xena gave her a sideways, mischievous look.
Gabrielle rolled her eyes. “But you know Corman, I didn’t think animals were smart either, before I met Xena. Since we raised sheep for wool, milk and food, they weren’t really something I went out of my way to make friends with.
Corman had been nodding the entire time she was speaking. “Yeah, right so.” He said. “I grew up on a farm as well, but mostly with pigs, and some chickens. Not a brain amongst them at all. My father made the beasts work for him as so he did with me until I was taken.”
“Horses are not pigs, and they’re not sheep. In the wild, they have to use their wits and speed to survive, and it makes em smarter.” Xena stated. “You wouldn’t ride a sheep, or a cow or a pig into battle.”
Both Gabrielle and Corman regarded her in silence for a moment. “A bull maybe.” Gabrielle said. “I remember you defeating that minotaur. He was pretty ferocious.”
The minotaur. Xena smiled, recalling it herself. “He was.”
“What is this minotaur?” Corman asked.
“A really big dude with the head of a bull.” Gabrielle advised him. “Big horns. Bad attitude.”
“A myth, surely” Corman said. “You have many here, in these lands.” He stated positively. “As we had our own in my lands as well.” He conceded. “But nothing real? There is no man with a head of a bull in this world.”
Gabrielle looked past him as she spotted some motion. “Oh, you’d be surprised at what walks around in the light of day in these parts.” She smiled a little, as the little pack of four round headed dogs wound their way around the legs of the ponies as Lyceus and Solon showed off their second place award to their father.
“Yeah.” Xena poked her, and pointed in the other direction.
“Mama look!” Dori spotted the same thing, gathering up Rusty’s reins and turning him, and then urging him forward. “Woot woot!” She yodeled. “We’re gonna have fuuuuuuuuuuun!”
Cari grabbed on as they accelerated into a gallop, going counter to the track and heading towards an oncoming group of riders on large, feather legged horses. “Eeeeeee!!!! It’s the peepholes!”
Corman was standing, staring at them, jaw hanging. “The devil!” He spluttered.
“Like I said.” Gabrielle lifted her hand and waved a greeting. “You’d be surprised.”
“Glad you guys could make it.” Xena reached out to exchange arm clasps as Jessan dismounted and got out of the way as his three children made a beeline for Dori. Six of his kind were with him, and they walked their mounts over to release them into the paddock.
“Us too.” Jessan agreed. “They passed word down to us that this place was packed with merchants.”
“It sure is.” The forest dweller looked around. “Did we just miss something?”
“Dori just won her first pony race.” Gabrielle said.
“Oh heck.” Jessan made a face.
“You all want to camp up near us?” Xena asked, noting the stares of some of the visitors at the tall, fur covered figures in their midst. “Its pretty packed down here.”
Jessan looked around again and made a small face, scrunching up his muzzle. “Don’t have to ask me twice.” He responded. “Talos, you all take our stuff up to the Chosen’s pad. Remember where that was?”
“Oh yah.” The russet furred male nodded. “The one with the nice bed.” He motioned to the others, and they quickly trooped off up the slope towards the gates to the town.
“Elaini sends hellos.” Jessan turned his attention back to his friends. “She’s in the middle of planting her garden. Wants me to bring back some seeds.”
“And presents.” Gabrielle said.
“And presents.” Jessan confirmed. “We’ve been trading with some of the Thracians downstream and I got a bag full of coins to play with.” He looked past Gabrielle. “Who is the freaked out kid there?”
Xena rolled her eyes.
“One of the merchants. He brought in those horses.” Gabrielle pointed. “Xena wants to buy them, but the kid wants her to teach him how to train first.”
Jessan looked at Corman, then at Xena, then back at Corman. Xena shrugged, and produced a wry grin.
Jessan looked at the animals. “Nice.” He said. “Small, but nice.” He paused, then regarded them. “Can we go somewhere to talk?”
“Uh oh.” Gabrielle tucked her hand into the crook of his elbow. “Trouble?”
Jessan’s nose wrinkled. “Not exactly.. or anyway, I’m not sure.” He explained. “Just some stuff we heard about those new shrines of yours.”
Xena indicated a spot near the paddock. “Lets get some drinks.”
“Probably a good idea.”
Gabrielle glanced around. “Dori, stay near the races, okay?” She called out. “Don’t go anywhere.”
“Okay mama.” Dori looked up from greeting her forest dweller playmantes. “We go see horses okay? Give happles.”
“Sure.” Gabrielle smiled. “Have fun kids. We’ll be right back.”
Butterbean had her small, fur covered hands resting on the middle paddock post. “Dem are nice.” She regarded the desert horses appraisingly. “Pretty.”
Dori had threaded her cup through the belt on her light woven tunic and she had Rusty’s reins wrapped around one hand. The pony was content to hang out next to her, eating the thick river grass they were standing in. “Boo likes these.”
Warrin boosted himself up and climbed into the paddock, squirming between the rails. “Bet you get that one.” He pointed at the smallest of them, a silver yearling with a smoke gray mane and tail. “For sure.”
Dori cocked her head to one side, and regarded the horse with slight surprise. “I got Rusty.” She demurred. “Dem is too big.” She said. “I like him better anyhow.”
“Sure now.” Butterbean agreed. “But you can ride that one soon.” She and her sister climbed into the paddock after Warrin and with a brief pause, Dori and Cari joined them. “You be big like us.”
“Don’t want.” Dori straightened out her belt. “Too big Boo won’t go fly no more.”
Gaby turned and regarded her solemnly. “Horses can fly, sorta.”
“Not the same.” Dori shook her head. “But these are pretty.” She acknowledged. “Could be fun.”
The horses lifted their heads and regarded the five children as they approached, and on the other side of the railings Corman saw them and started for the gate.
“Hey.” Corman called out. “What are you doing?”
The children ignored him. Dori wiggled herself to the front and dug in her belt pouch as they came up to the four animals, and the stallion lowered his head and sniffed curiously at them. She extended her hand with a bit of cut apple in it without any fear. “Here, pretty horse.”
His lips nibbled it off her palm and he snuffled at her hair and their eyes met.
“Pretty.” Butterbean agreed, as she touched the stallion’s knee, and patted his shoulder. “Bet he’s fast.”
“Bet.” Warrin nodded. “Too small for us though. Not like dada’s horsie.”
“Boo went on this one.” Dori offered the stallion another treat. “They said that.”
“Stop that!” Corman climbed over the fence.
“Who’s that?” Butterbean asked Dori, who had moved over and was patting the stallion’s leg. “Gonna make trouble for us.”
Dori looked over. “Mama and Boo don’t like that one.” She whistled softly under her breath and a moment later two of the round headed dogs appeared, and she held her hand out towards Corman in warning. “You stop!”
The three forest dweller children turned and Cari went over to stand next to Dori. The round headed dogs got between them and Corman and started growling.
“Leave them alone!” Corman called out. “Those are mine! Get those animals away from them!” He hurried towards them in alarm, as the horses started and shifted away.
“Hey! Don’t do that.” Dori got in front of him. “You scaring them. Stop!”
“Uh oh.” Cari turned and starting running. “I go get Mama!” She squirmed through the rails and bolted, heading to the far off set of tables she’d seen Xena and Gabrielle walking towards and after a moment she nearly jumped when Rusty galloped up next to her. “Oh!”
The pony tossed his head and she hauled, and with effort, climbed into his saddle. “Oof!” She managed to get in place and took hold of the reins. “Go Go go!” She yelped. “Find mama!”
Rusty picked up into a gallop, swerving through the gathering race crowd who was laughing and moving out of the way.
“Get away from them!” Corman started waving his arms. “Little beasts!”
Butterbean, Warren and Gaby came up and stood next to Dori, their fur covered bodies roughly her height, their clawed hands curling into fists, muzzles twitching into scowls that testified to their essential natures disregarding their young age.
Dori lifted her hands and made a warding off gesture. “Stop!” She got in front of the horses and the mares shied and darted off, the stallion tossing his head and letting out a whinny of annoyance. “You’re scaring them!”
“Get away!” Corman aimed a kick at her, frantic to separate the horses from the children and the impact knocked Dori backwards onto the ground and she fell between the stallion’s front legs as the horse reared in surprise, striking out with his hooves.
Warrin bolted forward and smashed into Corman, grabbing him around the leg and sinking his teeth into his thigh as Gaby picked up a rock and threw it at him.
Dori rolled over and covered her head with both arms instinctively as she sensed the dangerous motion around her and felt the impact as the horse’s big feet landed on either side of her.
This was bad. She paused a moment and squinted, seeing a leg nearby and she reached out and grabbed it, pulling herself up and around to the side of the stallion as Corman let out a howl of rage and started pounding on Warrin’s head.
“Hey!” Dori squalled in outrage, pushing off from the stallion’s leg and dashing over to help her friend as Butterbean joined her and as she reached Corman she jumped up into the air and grabbed his hand that now had a dagger in it.
She could smell the metal. She swung her body around and jerked Corman offbalance as the knife was about to stab Warrin and then it was right up against her skin and he was grabbing her with his other hand.
It cut her and Dori let out a yell from the pain.
Then she heard a growl as the two round headed dogs attacked Corman’s legs and off to the right she heard people running, heard boot steps faster than the rest of them coming quickly towards them as the horses all scattered in panic.
She could smell blood now, her own blood and she jerked her body harder, and pulled Corman’s arm back and her weight pulled them both to the ground and she fell on his arm, pinning it down as Butterbean pounced on his hand and ripped the knife out of it, turning and tossing it away from them as Warrin leaped on the man’s chest.
With a yell he squirmed to one side, getting his arm loose as he scrabbled to find the knife and then a heavy weight landed on him and a hard piece of wood was pressed against his throat, cutting off his breathing as a knee impacted his ribs with enough force to crack them.
He blinked his eyes open, struggling to draw a breath as he focused on ice cold green eyes staring at him, framed in an oval face topped with thick blond hair.
“Dori, are you okay?” Gabrielle asked, turning her head to look at her daughter, as she caught her breath and willed herself to stop shaking.
“Mama, he cut me.” Dori proffered her arm, which had a slim red slice showing. “Ow!” She got up and offered Butterbean a hand. “He’s bad!” She added, as Cari skidded to a halt next to her. “You get mama?”
“I get mama.” Cari confirmed.
“Good!” Dori patted Warrin on the back. “You do good too!”
Warrin spat a mouthful of something on the ground and grimaced. “Ptha.” He stuck his pink tongue out and spat again. “Bad taste.”
Gabrielle turned her attention back to Corman, lifting her staff end back to let him breathe. “Honestly?” She said. “You’re far too stupid to be left alive and walking around here.”
“Those are mine.” He rasped hoarsely. “You’ve no right to touch them! Nor those animals either!”
Two soldiers appeared as Gabrielle stood up and took a step back. “Take him to the jail.” She instructed the militia. “Lock him up.”
“What?” Corman was lifted to his feet between the grip of two brawny men in half armor. “I’ve done nothing! I was attacked!”
“Gabrielle’s right. He’s too stupid to live.” The soldier on the right said, dragging him forward. “C’mon, Bolas. Let’s get him shut up so we can enjoy the races.”
“Right.” The soldier on the left shook his head. “Gen’rl shoulda snapped his neck t’other day.”
“Mama look.” Dori came over and Gabrielle knelt to examine her arm. “He was going to make Warrin hurt!”
“I know. I saw you.” Gabrielle wiped a bit of sweat from her own brow. “You’re so brave, Dori. You scare your mama sometimes you’re so brave.”
Dori blinked solemnly at her. “Mama, got to help friends.”
“You do.” Gabrielle looked up as a shadow fell over both of them. “Just a nick.” She said, as Xena knelt beside them. “But by the gods, Xena.”
“Mm.” Xena frowned. “What happened, Dor? What did he do?” She saw the cut already closed, just a faint hint of red blood still visible.
“We were just looking at the horsies Boo.” Dori said. “He scared them! He made the buppits mad and we said no, stop and he didn’t.”
Warrin was sitting in the grass, chewing a stalk of it. “I bitted him.”
“The horsies got mad too.” Gaby said. “I throwed rocks at him.”
“What was he trying to do?” Gabrielle asked Xena. “They’re just kids.”
“No idea.” Xena leaned over and gave the cut a kiss. “There ya go, Dor. Just keep it clean, okay?” She swiveled. “The rest of you okay? No one else get hurt?”
“No, Auntie Xena.” Butterbean, whose actual name was also Xena. “All good.”
“All good.” Gaby agreed.
Warrin poked his tongue out. “He tasted bad.”
Gabrielle fished in her belt pouch. “Here.” She handed over a honeyball. “You guys were amazing and brave.” She glanced at Xena. “We have to do something about him, Xe.”
“We do.” Xena exhaled, and stood up. “He drew metal on our kids. No going back from that.”
They were seated at the back table in Cyrene’s inn, a pot of stew on a divot between them and mugs of ale at every chair. Xena and Gabrielle were next to each other, Jessan and Ephiny were across from them and Bennu was straddling a stool at one end leaning his elbows on the table as he listened.
“Seems to me like he’s just an idiot.” Ephiny said. “Xena, you kicked his ass twice, everyone warned him, your army told him – he got handed his head by four little kids.. I say have the guard take him up the river and set him on his way.”
“And without them horses, Genr’l.” Bennu added. “Doesn’t know how to do nothin with em.”
“He pulled a knife on Dori. You could just kill him.” Jessan remarked. “Or I could. He could have hurt my kiddos.” He propped his head up on one furry fist.
And all of that was true. Gabrielle had one hand draped over her partner’s arm and she was idly rubbing the edge of her thumb against her skin. “Well, we can’t kill every idiot we meet.” She sighed. “Mad as I was, and believe me I was, I wasn’t going to penalize him for something he could have done.”
“He cut Dori.” Xena commented briefly. “I’d have killed him if I’d gotten to him first.”
“I know.” Gabrielle said.
“Me too.” Jessan said. “I mean, I’d have killed him too.”
“I woulda.” Bennu grunted. “Boy’s a moron.”
Gabrielle looked at Ephiny, who smiled and briefly shrugged, nodding in acknowledgement as well. “I guess he’s just lucky I was the first one Cari saw.” She sighed. “So now what? We can’t just go in the jail and kill him.”
“Sure we can.” Xena disagreed. “Its my jail.”
“It is.” Her partner shrugged.
“People, c’mon.” Gabrielle rubbed her temples. “We do have rule of law here.” She glanced sideways at Xena who was watching her. “Even if it’s your law.”
Xena sighed. “Okay, so we put him on trial and then what? What are we going to sentence him to, ten years in the pigsty?”
“Hard labor, that.” Bennu said. “Idiot’ll end up head first in it, and we’ll have nothin but trouble from it.”
“Any sentence isn’t going to help.” Ephiny agreed. “He’s an idiot. In ten years, he’ll be a ten year older idiot now with a grudge.” She said. “That’s why I said, pack his ass off someplace and get him the Hades out of here.”
‘He’s too dumb. He’ll come back.” Jessan said. “He’s the kind of human who’ll just keep hitting his head against a tree until a coconut falls out of it and knocks him out.”
And that all, in fact, was also true. Gabrielle knew it. “Let me go talk to him.” She said. “At least if we keep him in jail over the festival he won’t keep messing things up.” She stood up and ran one hand through her hair. “Because I agree with Jess. He’s that kinda guy.”
She went around the back of the table and out the side door of the inn, letting the door close behind her.
The rest of them left spent a moment looking at each other.
“Some things never change, y’know?” Ephiny regarded Xena with a wry smile.
“Never want it to.” Xena replied. “I would have been stoned to death right in front of this inn if it was any other way.” She leaned back in her chair, looking briefly around the inside of the inn parts of which were older than she was.
It felt strange, for a moment, knowing that. Feeling the history of it, her history which had come down such strange paths to where she was today and knowing somewhere around the place walked people who shared blood with her and no longer wanted to see her dead.
But she wondered, sometimes, even with all that, if she had changed more or they had. Or no one had changed, and they just had come to an appreciation of a strong hand and inflexible will in a world that never seemed fair.
“Do we really have to put that skanker through a trial?” Bennu asked. “B’gods, Xena, waste of all of us times.”
Xena regarded the fireplace. “We do.” She finally said. “It’s the law here, and we should respect that, cause we’d want it applied to any of us, right?”
“Mm.” Bennu wrinkled his nose, but nodded.
Ephiny chuckled. “We’d have to anyway if I know my queen.”
“And the judge could sentence him to death anyway.” Jessan added. “I read that in your bylaws.” He said, as everyone looked at him. “Hey, I’m furry, not illiterate.”
Everyone laughed and relaxed, and Ephiny poured them all another round of ale, and put the empty pitcher down on the service plank just behind them.
Then the front door to the inn slammed open and a large, noisy group entered, led by a tall, dark haired man with a full beard in black armor, who paused in the center of the inn and looked around.
He was wearing a heavy obsidian amulet around his neck and a filigree band on his brow and his attitude was one of richness, and command. He had just a tracing of silver at his brow, and a prominent jaw, with a cleft in it’s center.
The scattering of other diners paused and waited, since the man was obviously looking to make a show.
“Anyone in charge here?” He said, after a pause. His voice was like the rest of him, deep and penetrating and arrogant in tone. “Innkeeper!”
“Now what?” Ephiny sighed. “I knew it was too quiet.”
Bennu had turned to regard them, then turned back. “Sigil’s an oracle of Ares.” He said. “Seen one before.” He eyed Xena.
“Yug.” Jessan made a face. “He’s gushing stallion musk.”
Xena pushed herself to her feet, resting her fingertips on the table. “What can we do for you?” She asked. ‘This is my family’s inn.”
He studied her, then nodded briefly. “It’s well then. My retinue and I require the best rooms you have, as we come here from Athens.”
Ephiny slowly lowered her head to her folded hands on the table, and Jessan covered his eyes with one fur covered paw.
The crowd, mostly locals, just laughed.
Xena walked around the table and came over to where the man was standing. “Sorry to tell ya, we’re out of rooms.” She said. “If you brought a caravan, there’s space across the river.” She folded her arms over her chest, aware from the corner of her eye of two of her militia coming to lean against the wall nearby.
Now it was his retinue who laughed.
The man lowered his voice. “Do you know to whom you speak?”
Xena lowered hers. “Do you know to whom YOU speak?” Her blue eyes twinkled a little, meeting his, and she lifted one eyebrow a bit in question.
He cocked his head to one side slightly, and in his eyes, Xena could see some intelligence. “Want to step outside and talk?” She suggested. “Could save us both some trouble.”
“As the lady wishes.” He smiled briefly, and gestured to the door, and she led him to it and then outside to the porch. They took the stairs together and walked off to the left, where a small open space was that had a good view of the river.
There was a wooden table there, with chairs, where the staff from the inn often ate their lunch in good weather. Xena took one of the seats and gestured to the other. “So.”
He sat on the table instead, putting his head above hers. “So.” He replied. “My name is Auralius. I am honored to be the oracle of Ares, at his temple in Athens.” He said. “They call me Ares Tongue.”
“Mm.” Xena sniffed reflectively. “What brings you here, Auralius? Last time I was in Athens Ares’ temple needed a good cleaning and had a broken altar stone.”
He frowned a little, remaining silent.
“My name is Xena.” Xena stated. “And I’m the militia leader of Amphipolis, which is where you are right now.” She hiked up one knee and rested her elbow on it. “But I too have other names.”
“Have I heard them?”
Xena shrugged and smiled. “Depends how long you’ve been around. But since you’re a follower you might have heard the name Ares Chosen.”
He started a little, then let out a breath. “Yes, that I have heard.” He admitted. “I have heard of one named such, who is also known by those high in his service, as his mortal champion.”
Xena raised her hand, and let it drop. “That’d be me.”
“I had not heard it said this was a woman.” He said. “Or that they lived in the smallest of backwaters.”
Xena turned and looked out over the vista. “Why not?” She said. “It’s beautiful here. And it doesn’t stink like it does in Athens.” She turned back around. “So, Auralius – what brings you here?” She asked again. “I want no part of Athens, or big marble temples.”
Now he stood and went to the other chair, pulling it over and coming to sit knee to knee with her. “What you say of the temple in Athens is true. We, me and my people, we changed that.” He regarded her steadily. ‘We brought great honor back to the temple of the god of war and we have heard, here, that a new temple draws accolytes to it.”
“Nothing like the size of the one there.” Xena said. “Just a small place, where people can go, and leave a tribute.”
Auralius nodded. “To bring him back into honor, here as we have in Athens and now I understand why, and why it has spread far and wide of this place, because you are here, and you are his.” He looked out over the slope. “I saw soldiers and training fields on the way to this inn. Yours?”
“Mine.” Xena admitted.
He nodded again. “Truthfully, on the road here I doubted.” He said. “So many days we rode, with nothing to see but trees and mountains and the river, we thought we would end up traveling into Thrace.” He cleared his throat. “But then, at the last pass in the hills we found a man who knew this place.”
Xena cocked her head slightly to one side. “He wasn’t looking for horses, was he?”
Auralius blinked at her. “By the gods he was. Had some tale of being ambushed on the road and his beasts taken but in truth, we doubted it.” He leaned forward. “But he did know this place and told us where to find it, and mentioned your name, in fact.”
Ah hah. “Yeah.” Xena sighed. “We’re pretty far out. Day’s ride or so up the river and you’ll be in Thrace.”
“Why you keep an army, no doubt.” The man smiled somewhat grimly. ‘Tis far from Athens here, that’s true.” He cleared his throat again. “So comes to my mission. I am the senior of all the oracles of Ares.” He paused, and Xena waited in silence. “This past year it came to us that with lack of worship of him, Greece suffers and becomes weak. We were ran roughshod by Sparta.”
There was truth to that, Xena acknowledged.
“Our army ran like women.” He paused, awkwardly. “I mean…”
“G’wan. I know what you meant.” She responded dryly.
“To change that, we must restore Ares to his rightful place in our hearts and minds.” Auralius said. ‘So many have lost their way in these last years, let the gods fall by the wayside. You know this.”
“All of us, his oracles, are spreading out through the land to see his temples rebuilt, and offerings made to him, and as we came further from Athens and entered this area, we heard of a new temple here, at Amphipolis.” Auralius finished. “And that it has power.”
Xena considered that, and felt a pang of apprehension she wasn’t entirely sure of the origin of. “It’s a simple altar.” She demurred. “Not really sure there’s that much to it.” But even as she said the words, she knew they weren’t true. “You’re welcome to go look though.”
He nodded. “We will, of course. We heard the people speaking, as we came through the market of a fabulous ceremony held there. We were hailed as we arrived, in fact, some knew us.” He shifted a little. “Now, shall we speak of housing for myself and my retinue? We do not expect to sleep on the ground, truly.”
“This isn’t Athens.” She reminded him in a mild tone.
“It is not.” He agreed. “But I am not a vagrant merchant, and I am the emissary of a great god you also worship.” His eyes narrowed a bit. “Surely you can displace a lesser guest.”
“I could..” She agreed, with a humorless smile. “But I won’t.” Xena shook her head. “If you want, I can put your party in the barracks with my soldiers.” She told him. “Beds are about the same.”
Auralius considered that thoughtfully for a long moment. Then he nodded. “It is well.” He said. “There are six of us, and it’s true we would feel at ease with others who live by the sword and honor what we honor.” He stood up. “I accept the offer. Let me call my men.”
Xena also stood, and then she let out a long whistle, remaining silent until she heard running boots heading her direction. “Not a problem.” She said, as one of the guard captains arrived. “Reddis, this visitor and his men need some bunk space. Take care of them wouldja?”
“Genr’l.” The man touched his chest, and regarded Auralius. “Have you horses, sir? I’ll call the grooms.”
A smile spread across Auralius face and he visibly relaxed. “I think this will end well for us and in more comfort than I had anticipated. We do have horses, and a wagon, standing down there at the other side of the bridge.” He pointed.
Reddis turned and let out a whistle sequence of his own. “Come with me then, and we’ll get you settled.” He glanced back at Xena and smiled as she winked at him. “Genr’l, seems like the youngsters races are setting up again, and I heard you be called for.”
“Can’t miss that.” Xena dusted her hands off. “Catch up with you later, Auralius. “ She waved as the visitor waved his retinue to him from the porch of the inn, and they all started down slope to the barracks.
She waited a moment, then folded her arms. “Got a bad feeling about this.” She muttered to herself. “Not really sure what I’ve gotten us into this time but I bet it doesn’t end well.”
Gabrielle stood inside the sturdy lock space and waited for the inner door to open to the jail. She gave the solider guarding it a smile as he pulled the door back. “Hello Jacus.”
“Ma’am.” The young main smiled back. “G’day.”
Jacus was a son of the town, just coming into manhood with a sparse blond beard and thick curly golden hair. He had the slim, coltish body of his age and twinkling hazel eyes.
Usually, he didn’t have much to do in the jail. With the Amphipolis militia living nearby, most didn’t cause trouble so he spent his time cleaning and repairing the small lockup, often to be found sitting on the front porch with a small anvil making chains.
Now, one of the three cells were occupied, and Gabrielle stepped past him to look inside the first one, where Corman was sitting on the rough wooden bench, leaning back against the wall and grimacing in pain.
Gabrielle took a seat on the stool outside the cell, as Jacus propped the two sets of barred windows open to allow the breeze through.
The jail was not a noisome hole, as some she’d seen and in fact been enclosed in. The floor and walls were made of stone, neatly finished, and the ground was covered in fresh straw whose pleasant musk was both clean and familiar.
The cells were well kept, and the two not occupied were standing open, and Jacus was now busy sweeping one of the floors.
Gabrielle pondered asking him to leave, then she swiveled and faced Corman instead. “So.”
“Are you here to beg my forgiveness?” He growled at her. “Fat chance.”
“No.” Gabrielle said. “You broke our laws, and I don’t regret taking you down for it.”
He glared at her. “Protecting what’s mine breaks your rules? That’s fine.”
She regarded him mildly. “What exactly did you think the children were going to do to those horses aside from feed them apples and corn?” She asked. “That they needed you to protect them, since they all are ten times the size of the kids and able to protect themselves with their hooves and teeth?”
“Do I know? With those creatures?”
He snorted. “No child I’ve seen looks like those did.”
Now Gabrielle had a better sense of what his motive had been. “Well, because you don’t know the forest dwellers. Do you think I’d let their children freely play with my children if they were dangerous?”
“Do I know? You’re nothing but savages to my eye.” Corman said. “Taking what’s mine, harming me, putting me here.. no having a counsel or my laws to protect me.”
“You should be nice to Gabrielle.” Jacus told him, from the next stall. “Because she’s the nicest person in Amphipolis and if you make her mad no one’s going to be on your side.”
“Thanks Jacus.” Gabrielle chuckled softly. “So Corman.” She returned her attention to the indignant boy. “You don’t take your laws with you. You have to obey the laws in the places you go, and I can tell you since I’ve been a few places, that can be tough.”
“So let me explain the laws here to you.” She went on regardless. “Because Amphipolis is kind of unique in regards to what’s law here. There are the laws of the town, which you broke by drawing metal on children, and pestering townswomen in the market.”
“Pestered no one.” Corman grumbled. “They were but harlots asking for it and I were just looking for some fun.”
“Then there are the laws of the Amazons, which you broke by assuming Amazon warriors were also open to your advances.” Gabrielle went on. “The penalty for either of those things, by the people who apply the law here, is either a beating or death depending on how far you went.”
He looked at her.
“Because in case you hadn’t noticed, women are in charge in both the town and the village here and we’re well capable of ass kicking.” Gabrielle said. “I am the queen of the Amazons and a reeve of the town. Those women you were pestering are my responsibility. The child you were pointing your knife as is my daughter. So by the laws of both the town, and the Amazons I could have killed you and not broken anyone’s rules.”
“And I could have. I am more than physically capable of killing people, and I have.” Gabrielle said, with a note of finality in her tone. “So now that we’ve gone through the law, and how we apply it, and why I’m not here to apologize to you let’s get to the final thing about the rules here.”
“I get it.” He grumbled.
“No, really you don’t. The third part of the law here is Xena.” She said. “Xena is a law unto herself.” She extended her boots and crossed her ankles. “The only reason you are still alive to be sassing me right now is that Xena decided not to kill you. No one would have stopped her. No law here applies to her. “ Gabrielle pointed in the direction of the barracks. “That’s her army.” She pointed up towards the hill. “This mountain is hers.” She pointed her thumb at her own chest. “I’m hers.” She leaned forward. “And the kid you pulled the knife on is also hers and the last person who put a hand on her got their heart pulled out of their chest while it was still beating.”
Now, finally, Corman was staring at her, fully attentive, in silence.
“Do you want to die?” Gabrielle asked, in an intense tone. “If you want to live, learn.” She said. “I might be able to get you out of here if you do.” She got up. “If you don’t, you’ll end up on a pyre and good riddance.” She lifted her staff and knocked on the door, and Jacus hurried over to open it for her. “Thanks Jac.”
“Anytime, Gabrielle.” He held the door and closed it as she went out, locking it carefully behind her.
Gabrielle paused, undecided, as she came down the road from where the jail was tucked at the back side of the town. She could hear the buzz from the market, and she started down the slope, veering to one side when she spotted a familiar figure waving her over.
Xena was seated on the fence, watching the horse racing, boots hooked under the second rail, ankles crossed. Gabrielle rambled down the slope and came to her side, peering over the fence to see Dori standing in the paddock with Rusty, surrounded by kids. “She win again?”
Xena just chuckled softly.
Gabrielle leaned on the post next to her, and spotted the big, red piece of fabric draped over Rusty’s neck, tied in a loose knot. It had embroidery on it, and though it clashed with his coat color, he didn’t seem to mind. Dori herself had one arm propped over his shoulder, the white bandage covering her arm visible.
“He’s got a good pace on him.” Xena said. “Good stock.”
Gabrielle rested her head against Xena’s side. “She’s going to outgrow him pretty soon.”
Xena eyed her. “Not that soon.”
“Yeah.” Xena acknowledged, after a moment’s pause. “I was thinking about one of the fillies from last year for her, but now I’m kinda leaning towards one of these new guys.” She indicated the newcomers in the next paddock, who were cropping grass, the activity of earlier forgotten. “That gray dappled mare.”
The smallest of them, a compact, neatly made animal with a black mane and tail, and a thick forelock falling over her eyes that reminded Gabrielle a bit of Xena, when her hair was long. “She’s pretty.”
“She is.” Xena agreed. “How’d it go with mule head?”
Gabrielle shrugged. “I gave him the you’re gonna die if you don’t wise up scam. We’ll see if it sticks.” She smiled as Xena surrounded her with one arm, and she felt the pressure of lips against the top of her head. “What are you doing to do with him if it doesn’t?”
“Aside from breaking his neck you mean?” Xena asked. “I intend on offering him top price for those animals and having the militia take him blindfolded into the hills and let him go there.” She said. “I think he’s more stupid than malicioius.”
“But I did find out there was a guy west of the pass who was looking for his lost horses.” Xena went on. “We had an oracle of Ares show up here with a posse and an attitude.”
Xena shrugged. “Hard to say. He wanted us to kick people out of the inn to house him. I wasn’t going to have that conversation with my mother so I put him in the barracks.”
“Oh, common garden variety jerk. I see.” Gabrielle sighed. “What does he want here, the new shrine?”
Xena paused to frame her response, then looked down as he felt the motion to see Gabrielle looking up at her. “They’re trying to revive his cult across Greece.” She settled for the plain unvarnished message. “They heard this shrine had power, and about me.”
“Yeah.” Xena sighed. “I can see this not ending well.” She admitted. “I can’t believe I’m saying this but I wish one them would drop by and clue us in on whats going on.”
Gabrielle nudged closer. “I knew it was too good to be true, all this luck. I keep wondering if those shrines really were a good idea, you know Xe? I mean.. I think they did something positive but …”
“At what price.” Xena said, precisely enunciating the words just ahead of her partner saying them. “Isnt it always that? We do what we do and we think we do the right thing but there’s always a cost to it.”
Truth. “Always a cost.” Gabrielle repeated in a murmur. “You do the right thing, you pay. You do the wrong thing, you pay. What the Hades, Xe. “
“Don’t bring him into it. I’m pretty sure he’s still pissed off at us .. “ Xena paused. “Still pissed at me for the whole thing last winter.”
Gabrielle gazed ahead of them, watching Dori do a little dance with Cari. “You realize you and I are the only ones who remember that right?”
“Something else must have happened, Xe. Something even we don’t remember.”
Xena turned sideways and faced her, one hand resting on her back as they studied each other seriously. “You think so?” She asked. “Last night at the ceremony I had this one .. I.. just an image in my head, of .. I don’t know what.”
Gabrielle gazed intently at her. “I had a dream the other night, about that night in the cavern. We were all there. I was telling that story I made up about the gods.”
“I remember that.”
Gabrielle fell silent for a long moment. “I’ve had that dream before, and it always just ended there, Xe. I’m telling the story, and then I look over and you’re smiling at me, and then it just stops.”
Xena nodded, but remained quiet.
“But this time, I remembered a little bit more. I was scared.” Gabrielle said. “Something scary was happening, and then you jumped up in front of all of us.. and then this time it ended.” She paused again. “But I know there was something after that.”
Xena’s eyes went a little unfocused and she looked past Gabrielle. She remembered the story, Gabrielle’s voice, warm and compelling as it usually was, the tired soldiers relaxed around the fire, warm and fed at last, all listening. Behind them, the lost Olympians also listening, Ares and Aphrodite, Apollo and his injured, mortal sister, coming closer to hear this tale that in their endless millennia was new to them.
And then thunder.
Then a sound as though the sky itself was coming apart.
She felt the surge of energy through her body in response to threat, instincts flaring, hands reaching for….
Then nothing but gray, and quiet and a fade out. “Hey Gab?”
“You know that thing you tell me sometimes, like we can see each other in dreams?”
“Yeah.” Gabrielle said, after a minute. “You always tell me I’m nuts but what does that have to do with this?”
Xena focused on her. “Lets try to do that on purpose tonight.” She said. “Maybe if we were both trying it, we see past whatever’s blocking our memory of it.”
Gabrielle blinked at her in surprise.
“Would it hurt to try?”
“No, I’m all for it.” Gabrielle grinned briefly. “I’m just surprised because you usually say I’m nuts when I say I see you in my dreams.”
Xena smiled back. “I”ve been wrong before.”
They exchanged looks and the echoes of memories they both did remember of their mutual past together, and Gabrielle took Xena’s hand in hers and kissed the back of it. “Whats the worst that could happen, Xe?”
“We end up sleeping in bed together.” Her partner said, pragmatically. “In the meantime I’ll have Benny keep an eye on those guys and make sure they don’t get us into trouble.”
“Ah, we’ve been spotted.” Gabrielle hopped over the fence and joined Xena as they walked across the paddock and watched their kids run towards them, pony in tow.
“Mama.” Dori came over to where Gabrielle was sitting. “Can we gets Cari a pony too?”
Gabrielle patted the couch next to her and waited for her daughter to climb up onto it. “Well honey does she want a pony?” She asked, in a reasonable tone. “Just because you have one doesn’t mean Cari does Not everyone loves horsies the way you do.”
Dori gave her one of those looks as though her mother had grown a second head. “She do.” She said. “She said she do, like Rusty.” She explained. “She wants to win the races too and get cups and stuff.”
“Okay.” Gabrielle amiably responded. “Lets see what we can do about that. I’ll ask your Boo what she thinks.” She made a mental note to also ask Cari about it, since sometimes her child was convinced everyone wanted what she wanted as a matter of course.
“Thank you mama.” Dori sat back with a contented expression. “We had fuuuuuuuun today.” She drummed her boots against the couch edge. “Gonna have more tomorrow, with Gaby and BB and Wary.” She glanced at the back window of the cabin. “They made a house there, mama.”
“I know.” Gabrielle smoothed her disordered bangs. “They brought their house with them, like we do sometimes, right?”
“Yes.” Dori agreed. “But I like our big house better mama.”
“Me too.” Her mother chuckled. “Did you have fun with all your friends in the village last night, Dor? Did everyone have fun?”
Dori considered that, her small brow puckering as she thought. “It was okay.” She finally said. “I don’t like some of those people mama.”
“They’re mean to each other.” Dori said. “They do mean things, and it makes people sad.”
Concerned, her mother half turned on the couch and leaned one arm along the back of it. “The other kids do, honey? Really?”
“No, mama.” Dori shook her head. “The bigger ones.” She looked up at Gabrielle.
Gabrielle studied the open, trusting eyes, so much like her own. “Are they mean to you?”
“No, mama.” Dori shook her head immediately. “The other kids, older ones.” She said. “They come and take them to the outside and then they come back and they’re sad.”
What in the heck? “Okay, let mama try to find out about that, Dori. No one should be making anyone sad, because mean things happen just by accident sometimes, so you shouldn’t do mean things on purpose, right?”
“Right , mama. You fix.” Dori said, confidently. “And you get Cari a pony. All good.” She drummed her boots again on the couch. “We had fun at the party. They told stories but not as good as your stories.”
Gabrielle chuckled. “Well, thank you Dori. You’re one of my best listeners, you know that?”
Dori grinned at her. “Everybody said anyway, mama is the best.”
“Mama is the best.” Xena closed the door behind her as she entered the cabin. “Everyone knows that, right Dori:”
“Boo!” Dori scrambled off the couch and bounded over, leaping up and squealing as she was caught and lifted high. “Yay!”
“Dinner up here?” Xena asked, as she carried Dori back over to the couch. “I figure Jess and his gang’ll be more comfortable than if we squash into the inn. It’s packed to the gills. My mother’s going nuts.
Gabrielle got up and stretched. “Works for me.” She went over and gave the pot on the fire a stir. “I have stew here, with leeks and barley and some fresh bread.”
“Yum.” Xena hoisted Dori a bit higher. “Where’s Cari, Dor?”
“With the fuzzy peoples.” Dori responded without hesitation. “Gaby was showing how to make a basket.”
“Okay, how about you going to tell everyone to come over here and get some of your mamas stew, okay?” Xena let her daughter down. “I”ll get the cider.”
“Sure Boo.” Dori trotted over to the door and opened it, slipping out and letting it close behind her.
Xena sniffed delicately. “Lamb?”
“Shh.” Gabrielle gave the pot another stir. “The kids were playing with them today.” She glanced at the window. “It’s mutton if anyone asks.”
“But it’s not.”
“No.” Gabrielle glanced over her shoulder. “One of the lambs fell down into the stream yesterday and they couldn’t save it. “
“More lamb for me.” Xena was reaching out the back window and pulling in a rope, hauling a cask up and over the window ledge dripping with cold spring water. She set the cask onto the worktable at the back of the room and twisted the stopper out, replacing it with a wooden spigot.
“Yes.” Gabrielle smiled. “Hon, can you toss me over the peppercorns? It needs something.”
Xena tipped the cask upright and went over to Gabrielle’s box of spices, a wooden container with dividers inside that she’d made a year or two back for Solstice. She opened it and peered inside. “The round ones?”
She scooped a handful and brought it over along with the mortar and pestle made from granite from the mountain. “Here ya go.”
Gabrielle set the mortar on the table and gave the corns a light grind, half turning as the door opened again and the cabin was now filled furry bodies. “Hey people.”
“Hey Gabrielle.” Jessan came over. “Your bitty boo rang the dinner bell.”
The bard chuckled. “It’s nice to have company.” She dusted the ground pepper into the stew, and resumed stirring. “Did you enjoy the market?”
“We kinda freaked out the market. It was nice to get up here where everyone knows us.” Jessan said, frankly “Lucky your lady friends ran interference for us.”
Gabrielle turned and looked at him. “Did you just call the Amazons my lady friends?”
Xena fell into one of the chairs, laughing as Dori climbed up onto her lap. “Not in front of them I bet.”
Jessan grinned, as he sat down on the low slung couch and two of his triplets got up next to him and the rest of his little gang settled around the cabin. “They’re nice, especially Cait.” He said. “And two of the militia came by and stopped some of the jerkiness too. Some of those merchants came from way off.”
“True.” Xena said. “Couple of them are from outside Greece.” She glanced at Gabrielle. “One of them’s a spice trader, hon.”
“Is that a hint?”
Xena licked her lips and winked.
“What happened with those guys from Athens?” Jessan asked Xena. “I heard from Benny they ended up in the barracks?”
Xena nodded. “They’re pushing Ares cult.”
Jessan nodded. “They were talking. Someone told them we were fans and it was weird.” He accepted a cup of cider from Gabrielle. “It was like, hey, so are you all the keepers of the shrine?”
“Mama, we’re hungry.” Dori announced, to a chorus of agreement from the child contingent. “Can you yak yak later?”
Jessan laughed. “Boy can you tell whose kid SHE is.”
“But we should talk.” Jessan finished, in a quieter tone. “I got some weird vibes.”
“Us too.” Gabrielle agreed, as she moved over to the stack of bowls. “Let’s feed the kids first.”
Xena cleared her throat.
“And the big kids.”