A Change of Seasons
At last it was quiet, the children all tucked away and asleep and it was just the three of them sharing cups of mead by the fire, the members of Jessan’s guard back in the tents and keeping watch.
Three friends with a long, complex history with each other, sprawled in comfortable chairs in a home all of them had at one point or other never thought to see in any future.
Yet, here they were, Xena and Gabrielle in casual rough tunics, Jessan in his blue knit overcoat, the cabin warmed by the tended fire in the stone fireplace, it’s red light flickering a reflection off Xena’s sword and armor hanging on the wall, the air still holding the fragrance of lamb stew and greens.
“There’s some weird stuff going on.” Jessan said. “Like, I was talking to Cait and Benny today, down there and we were having these mutual moments of ‘oh wait, yeah I remember that.’ About the stuff that happened last winter, when we went into Thrace.”
Xena nodded. “Most everyone doesn’t remember what Gabrielle and I do.” She stated flatly. “Like a fog came down over most of it.”
“Right!” Jessan said. “I had totally forgotten when Cait and I were stuck inside Hade’s realm. How?” He lifted a clawed hand, palm up. “I didn’t remember until I saw her, and then it was like she just remembered that too.”
“But you remember. A lot of people don’t.” Gabrielle said. “I mean, they really don’t, to the point of ‘what the heck are you people talking about’ don’t.”
Xena leaned back in her chair, one long leg slung over the arm of it. “We think it’s on purpose.” She said. “Our interactions with the gods, being wiped out.”
“Well…” Jessan’s face scrunched in reaction. “Y’know…”
“Maybe for good reason, right?” Gabrielle said. “I was thinking about that this morning, you know? How it might be better off for everyone if we didn’t remember all that stuff, because a lot of it kinda stunk.”
Jessan was thoughtful. “True.” He admitted. “Gotta be honest, I saw some stuff I really wish I hadn’t.”
“We learned a lot about things we probably didn’t much want to know.” Gabrielle said. “And, when I think about it..”
“It’s squirmy and uncomfortable.” Jessan finished. “Me too. I don’t’ talk about it. I never tell anyone back in our village about it.”
“No, we don’t talk about it here either.” Xena said. “But I remember it.”
“I remember it.” Jessan said. “I remember the truth of how we got back, and waking up in my place and having my wife tell me she saw me and the rest of us arrive the previous day and I know that’s not true.” He cradled the cup in his hands. “I know the gods sent us back.”
“The gods sent us back.” Xena said. “What’s the last thing you remember before that, Jess?”
His golden, inhuman eyes regarded her somberly. “We listened to you telling that story, and then it started thundering.” He said. “I felt like a thousand rats were crawling all over my body.”
“Just a lot of bad energy.” Jessan agreed mournfully. “There was something bad there. Something came into that cave and I was scared.” He took a sip of the mead. “Then I heard a loud sound, and sat up in bed.”
“Just like us.” Gabrielle agreed.
“Just like us.” Xena waggled her booted foot. “And no sign of any of them since.”
“Huh.” Jessan grunted. “Well, same for everyone I guess but not all of us got to talk to them a lot before that either.” He said. “I guess that’s good?”
Xena and Gabrielle both shrugged.
“Xena, how come you guys decided to make those shrines?” Jessan asked, in a serious tone. “I mean, why here? Why now? I remember us talking about it, and me saying my people wanted that too, but we were always believers, you know?”
Xena remained silent for a long time, eyes slightly unfocused as she considered the question seriously. “Actually that wasn’t our choice.” She finally said. “The Amazons and the army asked for them. Benny came to me and said the troops wanted to put a shrine up to Ares, and did I mind?”
Had she? “At that moment, no.” Xena said. “After what we’d just been through, with all of that – knowing what I did – no. I thought it was a good idea.”
“That’s true.” Gabrielle said. “A whole lot of the tribe came to me and asked, said they missed that, the offerings and all of it and I guess.. I think I said, sure. Why not?”
“Why here, why now…” Xena shook her head a little. “I think the sense from everyone was that all the craziness that we’d seen, that we’d been going through – maybe it was because we’d left the old traditions behind.”
Jessan looked at Xena. “Did you really believe that?”
Xena just smiled, her pale eyes a firelit ochre as she slowly twirled the mead in her cup.
“The Amazons felt that way. First I thought it was mostly the elders, but really, I’ve heard positive things about it from the youngsters too.” Gabrielle said. “And you know, it’s been a good spring.”
“It has been, that’s for sure.” Jessan said. “Everything’s sprouting up – and remember we were wondering what effect that whole thing was going to have, with Persephone and all that?”
“Yes.” Xena drummed her fingers on the arm of the chair, propping up her head with her other fist. “I just feel like we missed something.” She said. “As in, what did we do, there at the end, that was good enough to get us sent home with all the trimmings? Everyone was still pissed off at us before that.”
“Hm.” Gabrielle grunted.
“Maybe we just got lucky?” Jessan suggested.
“I don’t think luck had anything to do with it.” Xena said. “Something happened. We just can’t remember what.”
“Do we want to remember?” Jessan asked, in a faintly plaintive tone. “Maybe that part worked out like it was supposed to, you know?”
Gabrielle almost forgot their idea. She was snuggled in bed, her eyes already closed before she remembered and stirred. “Ugh.” She hiked herself up on her elbows and opened her eyes, looking at Xena’s moonlit profile.
“S’wrong?” Xena opened one eye and regarded her.
“We were going to do something to meet up and remember our dreams. Remember?” Gabrielle said. “Not that I really know how we’d do that.” She added, after a pause.
“Think about telling that story, and I’ll think about hearing it.” Her partner said in a practical tone. “Lets see where that gets us.” She closed her eye and exhaled, squiggling a little bit into a more comfortable spot in their comfortable bed.
“You’re so smart.” Gabrielle smiled, allowing herself to relax again, as Xena started to gently scratch across her back with her fingertips. “Why didn’t I think of that?” She slid her arm over her partner’s body.
Xena chuckled softly.
One of the windows was open, and the cool breeze was coming in, the smell of the freshly sprouting trees tinging the air. This far from everything they could only hear the branches rustling, and this late in the evening no sounds at all were audible from village, town or market.
It was so nice, and so peaceful. Gabrielle felt the creeping dislocation that was sleep overcoming her, and she spent a moment arranging her thoughts, calling up the memory of that cold night in the cavern, the taste of odds and ends soup on her tongue, the feel of her heavy cloak draping over her shoulders.
She remembered being tired, and her throat hurting, a little and wanting, really, nothing more than a cup of hot tea and the comfort of Xena’s embrace.
She remembered taking off that cloak, and Jessan taking it for her.
She remembered the army, and the Amazons, all also tired, and grateful to be at what they thought was the end of the fighting, everyone anxious to get through the night and start on the long walk home.
She remembered Xena sitting at the back of the crowd, also in her cloak, elbows resting on her knees, the shape of her longsword hilt visible over her shoulder.
What had the story been? Ah, yes. About the gods and how they’d become the teachers of men. A tale she’d made up out of nowhere, off the cuff. Completely a myth she’d now had to tell several times since everyone sorta liked it.
Ares had even asked Xena where she’d gotten it from, hadn’t he?
Gabrielle felt herself drift from waking into sleep, imagining she could hear the echoes of the snap of the fire in the cave, and the rustle of motion from all the fighters they’d brought with them, and then the sight of Xena sitting on a crate, with Ares next to her.
Ares in the borrowed armor and leather from some mortal soldier, a cloak lined with bear fur over his shoulders, his Sword of War visible behind him.
Xena with one knee raised, elbow resting on in, her other arm stretched out along the boxes behind Ares back, benignly relaxed in his presence, for once.
She drew breath to continue the story, then she was asleep, and it was gone.
Xena felt like she was half in and half out of sleep, partially aware of sounds and echoes around her, partially aware of being someplace other than at home.
She could hear voices, low and murmuring, and hear the movement of animal hooves against stone, but also the sound of a bird’s morning song and the thud of boots against earth.
A hand pressed on her stomach. “Xe.”
The other place retreated at once, and the interior of their cabin and the light of pre dawn rushed in and she was opening her eyes to see Gabrielle sitting up, and hear the imminent noise of someone coming up onto their porch.
Instinctively she rolled off her side of the bed and reached for the tunic she’d tossed over the nearby chair, pulling it on over her head as she moved towards the door just as whoever it was mounted the steps and lifted their hand to knock.
“I’ll get some tea started.” Gabrielle had put on her own shirt, tugging it down to cover her body as she blinked the sleep from her eyes.
“Might not have time.” Xena opened the door, her body relaxing as she recognized her own militia there, his breath fogging as he stopped on seeing her and withdrew his fist to knock. “What’s up?”
“Genr’l, tis the guests we had with us. They climbed up to the ridge last night and one of them fell down it. He’s hard broken and Bennu thinks it needs ya.” The guard got out, between deep breaths. “We sent the wagon round for him.”
There were a dozen healers in Amphipolis, of greater and lesser degree. “Hurt that bad?”
“Like to dying.” The militia said, in a frank tone. “Came down from round halfway they said.”
“Okay.” Xena gestured to the bench on the porch. “Relax, and I’ll be right there.”
Gratefully the man took a seat and extended his legs, massaging his calves. Xena shut the door and turned to find Gabrielle holding out her leggings and boots. “Thanks.”
“I’ll get your kit.” Gabrielle released the garb and went to the large storage press against the wall, opening it up and peering inside. “What do you think happened?”
Xena was tying the laces on her leggings, her boots already on. “What do I think happened?” She pulled off her shift and put on a roughly woven overtunic, buckling the belt on it. “I think they got drunk off their asses and decided that climbing those stairs at night was a good idea and it wasn’t.”
Gabrielle had removed the leather bag from the press and was stuffing Xena’s healer supplies inside. “Sounds about right.” She added a roll of bandage, and closed the bag up, coming over to put the strap over Xena’s head as her partner ducked to receive it. “Let me grab you a cup.”
“I got it.” Xena leaned across the table and un-stoppered the cask of cider, letting it fill the wooden cup in her hand and then shutting the spigot. She drained the cup in a few swallows, the sound of the gulps loud in the momentary silence.
Dori pattered out of her room, hair askew. “Mama! Whatcha doin?”
“Boo has to go take care of something, honey.” Gabrielle reached behind her and grabbed a hunk of bread from their dinner the night before. “You hold on there and I’ll get you and Cari some breakfast.” She stuffed the bread in Xena’s hand and got the door open. “Send news back.”
“I will.” Xena leaned over and gave her a kiss on the lips, then rambled through the door and closed it, her boots loud and rhythmic on the steps and then soft thuds on the path leading down.
Gabrielle felt a little dislocated, it had all happened so quickly. She paused and rubbed her eyes, sorting her thoughts and deciding what to do next. “Okay.”
“Okay.” Dori picked up Xena’s cup from the table and held it up. “Mama I’m thirsty.” She half turned hearing steps behind her, as Cari came out of the little room they shared. “Cari’s thirsty too!”
Thus addressed, Cari stopped and blinked, and behind her the two puppies came out, tails wagging. “Hi.” She ventured. “Sun is coming!”
“And I’m sure the puppies want something too.” Gabrielle had to chuckle a little. “Hang on there, kiddos. Let me get things started for ya.”
She got the tea going, and rummaged in their supplies for something to eat, and her ears pricked on hearing the sounds of stirring from the forest dweller camp behind the cabin. “C’mere you lot.” She put a pitcher of cider on the table, and a bowlful of cut pieces of pear. “Start with that.”
Dori and Cari scrambled up onto the high seats that were theirs, rungs set in the legs that let them climb. Dori pulled the bowl of pears over and took a piece, pushing the dish towards Cari.
Gabrielle filled two small cups with cider and put them down, then put down a wooden dish full of the leftovers from the evening’s meal for the puppies.
She cut a few pieces from yesterdays loaf of bread and set them down, putting down a hunk of cheese with them, and pouring the boiling water over the crushed herbs in her own cup.
Then she sat down and mixed a bit of honey into the steaming tea, taking a breath of its steam and allowing her unsettled nerves to settle back down.
On the mantel, Dori’s trophies were sitting and she spared them a smile. “Rusty did a great job yesterday.” She said. “Do you think we should get him something nice, like a new blanket?”
“Yes!” Dori agreed enthusiastically, sending crumbs from her mouthful of bread outward. “Mama he would like that a lot.”
Cari was nodding as well. “It should be pretty.” She looked down as her puppy stood up and put his head in her lap. “Puppies would like some too, right Teo?”
Gabrielle got up and drained her tea. “Let’s get ready and go down to say hello to Grandma.” She said. “Then we can see about presents.” And see what the story was with the injured visitor.
See what trouble that might bring.
The guard was watching for her as Xena reached the bottom of the hill and had the gates already swinging open, whistles echoing forward.
Her somewhat reckless downhill ramble turned into a run, and as she headed down the lane that led from the back gate to the front of the town the few early morning residents stepped back out of her way.
She could see the militia down across the river in a clump, and from the slope she spotted the wagon with outriders surrounding it and she slid her bag around to her back as she picked up speed.
There was smoke from campfires in the air, and the market was stirring with the unusual activity in its midst, the hawkers rubbing the sleep from their eyes as they wandered over to see what was going on, driven by natural human curiosity.
Xena reached the bridge and sprinted over it, and she saw Bennu wheel his horse around and start in her direction as he saw her approach, the horses in the riverside paddock bolting and running along with him in startled reaction.
“Thanks for coming down, Xena.” Bennu pulled his horse up as she reached him. “Bad fall, yeah?”
“So I heard.” Xena kept her pace up and he turned to follow her. “What did they think they were doing going up that ridge in the dark?”
“Said they got some message.” Bennu lifted his voice over his horses trotting hooves. “Sounded crazy, had them other fellas with em, the ones what climbed up t’other night.”
“Figures.” Xena muttered, slowing to a walk as she got to the edge of the market.
The crowd parted for them as they reached it and Xena strode past the vendor stalls, where people were stirring hastily and approached the oncoming wagon. She could see the oracle’s entourage, two of them mounted on the wagon and three riding double with militia and the group from Ithaca behind them.
So of course, the moron that got hurt had to be the oracle. Xena sighed internally as the wagon rumbled to a halt and then she got a boot up on the buckboard and pulled herself up along the side to look into the bed.
The sixth member of the entourage was sitting there cradling the still form of the oracle. Xena continued her motion and swung her body up and over the wagon walls coming to land next to them. “What happened?”
The man seated had wide, anxious eyes that went with his expression. “We were ascending the wall and something attacked us!”
“Said something came down the steps, Xena.” Bennu was leaning on the side of the wagon, still mounted on his horse. “From the top, like.” He added. “Could have been someone up at t’shrines.”
“Well, they’re open for anyone.” Xena unlooped her leather satchel from her shoulder and set it down, pulling the top open. “Lemme see.”
“He’s hurt.” The man protested. “He needs a healer.”
Bennu cuffed him on the side of the head with one gauntleted fist. “Mind your tongue with the gen’rl.”
“I am a healer.” Xena batted his hands aside from the oracle. “Let that cloak go.” She ordered. “Unless you want him to just die in front of you in which case I’ll go back for my breakfast.”
The man removed his hands with an expression of doubt, but kept his mouth shut.
The others of the entourage had gathered around and were watching with worried expressions, and the militia eased up next to them. “Anything we can get you, genr’l?” Redder asked.
“Clear a path for this up to the infirmary.” Xena carefully unwrapped the man and grimaced as the cloak came away doused in blood. She could see one side of his face, but the other was stained red, stiff and crusted in his beard and hair. “Someone go up to the barracks and get water heated and towels ready.”
“Right.” Redder and Bennu turned their horses and started up toward the town gates, sending whistles before them.
His skull was split. Xena could feel the cracks under her fingertips and for a moment she almost shrugged. Then she started checking the rest of him, identifying a broken leg as well. He was completely unresponsive, and she had to check twice to be sure he was still breathing.
This did not look good. “His head is cracked.” She said. “Everything else will heal if that does.” She regarded the oracle. “That’s going to be tough. Let’s get him to the barracks.”
“We must find what attacked him.” One of the entourage said, firmly. “This must have justice. He was thrown down deliberately, we saw it.”
“Let’s wait to get him under cover.” Xena said. “Then we can talk about that.”
Inside the infirmary in the barracks, they settled the oracle onto a freshly draped pallet as two of the medics from the militia brought over a cart with a bucket of lightly steaming water and piles of towels, two more clearing space for Xena as she entered.
“We will make our prayers to Ares for him.” The five remaining people of the oracles party gathered in the corner and bent their heads together.
Xena glanced at them, shaking her head slightly as she went over to the water trough and scrubbed her hands off. “Petar, do me a favor willya?”
“Surely, Xena.” One of the scouts came over.
“Go up to my place, and let Gabrielle know what the story is.” She shook the water off her hands. “And take two or three of the guard and go up to the shrines by the top route. See what you can find.”
“Aye.” The man nodded confidently. “I’ll see if Cait can come with us.”
“Good idea.” Xena smiled briefly.
Three of the militia left, and she turned and went back to the pallet, taking a seat on the small stool that had just been put down for her and picking up the first of the towels. The oracle’s breathing had taken on a rough, snoring sound and she had to briefly consider if she was just going to make a clean corpse of him.
Oh well. She mentally shrugged and started working, soaking the towels in the warmed water and washing off the gore from his face, dampening the draping and pallet and causing a rash of red stain to trickle down on either side.
As she cleared the blood off him, she could now see bruises all across his face, and under his right eye there were scratches, as though claws had raked over his skin. “Huh.”
Bennu knelt next to her. “Animal?”
“Could be.” Xena murmured, wiping away the gore from the scratches, which were narrow and thin, about half the size of her own hand. “Doesn’t look like anything I’ve seen before though.” She studied the marks, then went on to finish her task.
“No, me either.” Her captain agreed.
One of the oracles entourage came over, and knelt on one knee next to her. “As we said, we were attacked.” He said. “We heard something coming after us. He.” He indicated the oracle. “Would come last. It hit him.”
Xena considered in silence. “You were coming down or going up?”
The man hesitated. “Down of course.” He finally said. “As I said, he came last. After it attacked, he fell and we were only barely able to stop his fall with our bodies.”
“You didn’t see anything up by the shrines?” Bennu asked.
Another hesitation. “No.”
“No one else was up there?” Xena looked up at him. “It’s hard to get there and not be seen.”
“We saw no person there.” The man said, stiffly. “Only we, and the travelers from Ithaca who were with us. They returned down the path before we did. They saw nothing.”
Xena’s ears pricked, and she shifted as she heard familiar bootsteps coming up the hallway behind the infirmary, in quick rhythm. She turned her head as the door opened and Gabrielle entered, a bit out of breath, with an agitated expression.
Instinctively she stood as her partner entered, and waited as Gabrielle came to her side, glancing down at the oracle, and then looking up at her, tensing her lips, her body radiating a warning that Xena got with no effort at all.
“Excuse us a minute.” Xena indicated the door to one of the arming storage areas. She followed Gabrielle into the room and went to the back of it, turning to face her and fold her arms. “Whats up?”
Gabrielle came over to her. “Hon, I got down here soon as the guys told me what was going on.”
“So I see.”
“What in the Hades happened?”
Xena half shrugged. “They went up to the shrine last night, and said on the way down, something attacked them – or really, the oracle. He fought off the attack but lost his balance and fell down the steps.”
Gabrielle frowned a little. “What attacked them? Another worshipper?”
Xena put her hand up and made a small motion across Gabrielle’s cheek. “Whatever it was, left claw marks on his face. Maybe they pissed off a cat?”
“I don’t know, hon. That’s why I sent a few people up there to look around.” Xena said. “Our kids are up there. I don’t want any of them tangling with something wild.”
They both sat down on one of the arming storage chests. “What in the heck could be up there that you don’t recognize the marks from?” Gabrielle asked after a long pause. “Could all of these hawkers have brought in something? Like that wagon Salmoneus had? With the bird?”
Xena looked thoughtful.
“Maybe they brought something up to the ridge as an offering, and then let it go when we had the ceremony the other night?”
“The Ithacans, maybe?” Xena said. “That’s possible. They were up there with those guys.” She indicated the door. “And someone was hiding something I could smell it.”
Gabrielle nodded a little, then she looked sideways at Xena. “I already heard whispers coming down here that the oracle of Ares getting hurt is a bad sign.”
Xena rolled her eyes.
“Hon, you can’t have it both ways. Either the shrines are legit and people believe in it, or the shrines are a scam and it doesn’t matter.” Her partner said, in a practical tone. “I get it.”
“Yeah.” Xena said, sourly. “I get it too. So lets find out what happened so if this guy dies at least we’ve got some facts about it.”
They stood up and faced each other. Xena put her hands on her hips and cocked her head in a considering pose. “Want to see what the market’s hearing?” She smiled briefly as Gabrielle adjusted the shirt she was wearing, tucking in the belt now stained with blood. “And find me something clean to wear when I’m done?”
“You got it.” Gabrielle gave her a pat on the side, and then ran her fingers through her pale hair, straightening out the hem on the hide skirt she was wearing. “Purposeful shopping. My kind of morning.”
Gabrielle spotted Eponin and Ephiny at a table near the stage, and she squirmed her way through the crowd to join them. “Hey.”
“Hey!” Ephiny lifted her boots from a third chair. “G’wan, I was saving that for ya. It’s packed!” She grinned at her queen. “Everyone wants to hear your new gig.”
“Hm.. we’ll see.” Gabrielle claimed the chair and settled into it. Behind the stage the sun was setting, painting everything in a sweet golden light and people were already going around and lighting the lanterns and torches as the players started preparing for their show.
“What’s up?” Pony asked, watching her face. “Where’s your other half?”
“Up at the barracks. She’s got a patient there we think’s not going to make it.”
“The Ares dude?” Ephiny was motioning over a server. “I heard about that. Fell down the stairs?” She asked. “What were they doing up there in the dark? Asking for trouble seems like to me.”
Gabrielle rested her chin on her fist. “Its complicated.”
Pony chuckled a little. “Aint it always?”
The server came over and set down a mug in front of Gabrielle. “We have hunters stew and bread.” She said. “And if you want some get it now, we’re running out of everything.”
“Sounds great to me.” Gabrielle responded. “You guys?”
“Sure.” Ephiny agreed readily. “And bring a pitcher of this ale, it’s good.”
The server left and they huddled closer together. “According to the rest of them, they had a special ceremony planned.” Gabrielle said. “Wanted to make an offering. Anyway, they say they finished and then some animal attacked them on the way down. Knocked that guy off the trail.”
Pony shrugged a little. “Well there’s a lot of stuff up on the mountain.” She said. “Its’ wild.” She took a sip from her mug. “We got the skins there to show for it.” She indicated the large stall that the Amazons were selling from. “I don’t get why they’d chase anyone down the path though.”
“No, Xe doesn’t get it either, and their story keeps changing.” Gabrielle agreed. “The Ithacans were with them, but further down the stairs. They didn’t see anything.”
“They say.” Ephiny eyed her meaningfully. “I saw them suck up to those Athens guys soon as they got here. They separated themselves from us backwoods rubes right quick.”
“True that.” Pony agreed. “Maybe that guy was drunk and he just fell.”
Gabrielle glanced around, then cradled her mug in both hands. “He does have claw marks on his face.” She said. “And Cait said she could see sign that some kind of scuffle went on, but up in front of the shrines. She found coins and some other stuff Xe’s going to look at.”
The server came back with a tray and a pitcher and set them down. “Here ya go. Inn sent down the sweetcakes for ya too.” She winked at the three of them and then went on to the next table, where several men were signaling they wanted more drink.
Gabrielle picked up a sweetcake and took a bite of it.
“Isn’t that dessert?”
“Always eat dessert first.” Their queen stated solemnly. “Life lesson learned.”
Pony snickered, but followed her example, as Ephiny took one of the small wooden bowls on the tray and served herself some of the stew. She set the bowl down then did the same for her companions, glancing up as one of the players strummed his sitar and started up a tune.
It was catchy and rustic, and more than a few boots started tapping in the crowd as he began a mildly rowdy song, the golden light turning the reds and oranges of sunset, casting shadows across the market square.
The stage was built back into a huge, old tree that had survived the floods and bad winter, its branches now sprouting into new life but still thinly enough to let the sky and riverbank be seen through it. There were dozens of performers waiting their turn, a large horse watering bucket placed to encourage the crowd to toss a few dinars at them to share.
Gabrielle smiled to herself, watching them, remembering times in her life when she was one of the waiting, hoping to make a few coins for them when they lived in the wild and on the road.
She thought about one night, at sunset almost like this one when they’d stopped at a coastal town at the end of a very long trek.
Xena had told her to just relax, and enjoy the chance to rest. They had a little money on them, enough to get a piece of roast on toast and a cup and to spend the night under a roof for a change and there was no real need for her to mount the stage.
But she had, because she had a new story in her head that wanted the telling and she’d figured, what the heck why not?
And the story had been well received. The crowd had enjoyed it, a much smaller one than this, and the innkeeper had comped them the meal and room for it.
Not in any way out of the ordinary, just one night in years of them, remarkable only because it had ended with one of the other players grabbing her just behind the little stage area and trying to drag her off to ravish her.
It had completely stunned her, so much that it had taken a moment before she reacted with both a kick to his groin and an elbow into his chin moments before Xena’s arrival leaving broken chairs and upended wenches in her wake.
His reaction had disgusted the both of them, in that he was honestly bewildered that his advances hadn’t been both welcomed and honored and it had angered him to be so rebuffed since he was tall and handsome, and every previous woman he’d taken had enjoyed it.
What had she expected, being half clothed and on display? What had she thought she was advertising if not the wish for someone like him to pleasure her?
What had she expected? Gabrielle sighed and rested her chin on her hand. She’d expected to gain a few coins to buy them some honeycakes and maybe a bottle of the mead she’d seen being hawked in that market. It was summer, it was hot and of course she was half clad but she’d been about the business of being a bard long enough by that time in all weather to know that her stories were welcome regardless.
It had felt frustrating and uncool. Then Xena had run out of patience and punched him in the face with one of her right from the shoulder hits, blackening his eye and sending him limping off into the shadows before she could do the worse she’d threatened to.
Gabrielle remembered being sad about the incident.
But then Xena had offered her a hand, and they’d gone back to their table to find a plate full of honeycakes and two bottles of that mead and a serving wench who’d leaned over and whispered thank you to her from all of her mates.
“Dinar for your thoughts.” Xena’s voice pulled her out of her reverie, along with the warmth of both her partner’s hands closing on her shoulders, warming them through the fabric of her shirt in a gentle squeeze before she took a seat next to her.
Gabrielle handed over a sweetcake and her mug, then linked her arm through Xena’s and leaned over to give her a kiss on the shoulder. “My thoughts are I’m glad you’re here just in case they start throwing winter apples at me up there.”
Xena snorted, and rolled her eyes.
“Hey you never know.”
Things had gotten quiet, after the songs and tales were done and the market was wandering off to find a place to roll up in their blankets in, and the people who lived in Amphipolis headed across the river to the sturdy town gates.
Xena stifled a yawn, strolling along and listening to Gabrielle and Ephiny talking, Pony having already gone up to the village ahead of them, going over in her head the new tale Gabrielle had told, smiling a little over her own part in it.
That was always a bit tricky, being in the audience, aware of the eyes turning to look at her when Gabrielle related some insane or inane thing she’d done and cognizant of both the disbelief from those who did not know her and the understanding of those that did.
Definitely was that split there, this time with all the visitors from afar and it reminded her a bit of when they’d traveled together back in the day.
“So, I was just wondering.” Gabrielle said. “Dori told me something about the older kids being taken out of the school and coming back upset.” She walked along with her staff, leaning forward a bit as they climbed the slope.
“And?” Ephiny eyed her. “Which older kids?”
“She wasn’t specific. Just that she said some of the older girls got taken away, at night usually and then when the came back they were unhappy.”
Ephiny frowned and twitched her cloak around her a bit.
“Is there yet another tradition I’m not aware of?” Gabrielle fished gently. “Like hazing or something like that?”
‘Sure there’s hazing.” Ephiny answered at once. “At all levels, you know that, Gabrielle. The seniors do it to the juniors, elders do it to seniors – Hades, remember that tickle challenge?”
Gabrielle chuckled softly.
“But for the kids? I don’t think I know of anything specific. They have to go through their initiation like those girls did the other night, but aside from stuff like being asked to get someone some tea or clean dishes as they get older, no.”
“Hm.” Gabrielle grunted.
“I’m going to check on Auralius.” Xena said, giving her a tap on the shoulder. “Meet you at home.” She turned down the path to the barracks and left the two women to move along on their own.
“They didn’t do anything to Dori, did they?” Ephiny asked suddenly. “No one was that dense?”
“No, I asked her. No one messes with her, or Cari now.” Gabrielle answered, lifting her hand to wave at one of the cooks who was taking a break at the back door of the inn. “It was more like – something that had happened to others and she wanted me to make it stop, it wasn’t something she figured she could take care of by herself.”
“So it was other kids then?” Ephiny mused. “Who did it? Or that it happened to?”
“Happened to. That’s what she said, and usually, you know, Ep, usually she doesn’t mention things to me unless it bothers her.” Gabrielle glanced to either side, looking down the lanes now quiet and dark. “Maybe we should have a talk with the minders.”
“Sure.” Her regent agreed readily. “Maybe something happened and they didn’t think to mention it to us or something.” She said. “Or maybe it just wasn’t what she thought?”
“Could be.” Gabrielle said.
They got through the town and approached the back gates, aware suddenly of raised voices. “Uh oh.” Ephiny peered ahead in the torchlit gloom. “Now what?”
They could see a group of people around the gates, which were shut tight, arguing with four members of Xena’s militia, who were braced in front of the gates shoulder to shoulder.
One of the militia spotted them approaching and hastily broke ranks, threading his way through the crowd and heading their direction. By his facial expression, Gabrielle reckoned neither of them were going to enjoy whatever conversation ensued. “Eh.”
“Eh.” Ephiny agreed.
“Gabrielle.” The militiaman stopped in front of them, turning around to see the argument continuing. “I’m glad you’re here. Those people want to go up the ridge, get to the shrines that way. We told them it’s not allowed.” He said. “They don’t want to listen.”
Ephiny regarded him. “So they won’t listen to guys with maces you think they’re going to listen to us?”
The militiaman looked at her with a puzzled expression.
Gabrielle sighed. “Lets see if we can get this sorted out before Xena catches up with us and she ends up breaking some heads.”
The men from Ithaca were there, along with others of the merchants. Gabrielle and Ephiny made their way over and confronted them. “What’s the problem here?” Gabrielle eased her way through the crowd until her back was to the gates.
“Someone said there was a way to the shrines this way.” One of the Ithacans said. “We want to go up and give an offering, to help the oracle.” His voice sounded reasonable. “He’s in a very bad way.”
Gabrielle considered for a moment.
“Move out of the way and let us go.” Another man said. “It’s too dangerous, the other route. We don’t want someone else to get hurt.”
Gabrielle folded her arms, aware in her peripheral vision of the militia gathering at the edges of the crowd, watching her. “The gates are closed for a reason. We don’t allow passage to the shrines up through it.” Her voice held a note of finality. “Sorry about that.”
Ephiny came to stand shoulder to shoulder with her, the torchlight glinting off the hilt of her sword, visible behind her head. “And even if the gates were open, we wouldn’t allow you past our entry.” The regent said. “So go back across the river, and either make your offering there or hike around.”
“Tis a far more dangerous path, this one.” The captain of the guard came to stand next to them. “The lady gives good advice.”
“Who are you calling a lady?” Ephiny gave the guard a sideways look, but the captain just smiled at her in wry affection regardless of her mock scowl. “You’re cruising for a bruising, Balar.”
“Besides.” Gabrielle assumed her reasonable tone. “It’s just as risky going this way even if we let you.”
“More. Unless you all know how to rappel down the mountainside.” Ephiny added.
“Let us see for ourselves.” The second Ithacan said obstinately.
“No.” Gabrielle said. “Turn around and go back down to the river or I’ll have the guard carry you back.” She noted the militia now gathering at the back and starting to surround the visitors.
“If the oracle dies, it will be on you.” The man stated. “Ares will take vengeance on this place. Let us through!” He lifted his voice, taking a step towards the gates. “Or you will suffer his displeasure!!”
“Listen buddy.” Gabrielle leaned on her staff. “I know more about Ares displeasure than everyone else here combined.” She shifted her grip a little downward, her body tensing as she got ready to fight. “Take your threats and beat it.”
The militia forced their way through the crowd and drew blades, as Ephiny unsheathed her sword and took a step to the side to clear space when she saw Gabrielle’s weight come off the staff and her hands spread, the muscles in her shoulders tensing.
“You dare defy the gods?” The Ithacan said, as he and the rest huddled together.
“Pretty much on a consistent basis since the day I came of age.” Gabrielle confirmed. “Take them out of the town, Balar.”
“Aye, Gabrielle.” The guard captain moved forward, brandishing his sword. “Move along.”
Reluctantly the group retreated, as the militia got between them and the gates and started forcing them backwards down the path.
“Y’know your Maj.” Ephiny said, sheathing her weapon. “Something tells me this ain’t gonna end well.”
Gabrielle sighed and turned around, pushing the gates open so they could continue on home. “It never does, Eph. It never does.”
She could smell the incense as she stepped through the double hung doors into the barracks and it made her nose wrinkle a bit. The infirmary was quiet, only two of the pallets in the outer area were occupied, two soldiers lying quietly but whose eyes tracked to her as she entered.
Xena detoured a little over to them. “Evening, boys.”
Young soldiers, whose attitude perked up at the attention. “Evening, ma’;… Xena.” The closest one said, with a little grin. “Lots of action in the back there.”
Xena took a seat on the stool between their pallets. “Hear anything, Rallas?”
The man shrugged a little bit. “They was chanting, a bit.” He said. “Some of them others from the market were there, talking with them. I think the hurt one’s not doing so well.”
“He’s hurt bad.” The second soldier said. “They were saying as how he’d do better if they was back in Athens.”
Xena sniffed reflectively. “With that injury? Not much chance of it.” She let her elbows rest on her thighs and laced her fingers together. “Might have done better if he’d been poisoned, or had the ague. Last time I was in Athens I had to fix my own broken kneecap they don’t do so good with that kinda stuff.”
Both soldiers grimaced a little. “Musta hurt, that.” Rallas said. “Like this broken ankle of mine.”
“It did.” Xena agreed. “Specially since I had things to do there.” She reached over and took hold of the bandaged hand resting on the other man’s pallet, inspecting the splints, unconscious of the appreciatively watching eyes as she brought a candle a bit closer. “That’ll do.” She pronounced. “Keep it clean.”
“I will, Xena.” The soldier promised. “Don’t want to spend any more time in here missing out on the fun.”
Xena grinned at him and released his hand. “Let me go see if I can do anything else for our guest.” She got up. “Then I’ll check your ankle.” She winked at Rallas, then made her way to the other end of the room where a shut door blocked the way into the private room the oracle was in.
The soldiers watched her go. “Them was wrong.” Rallas said to his companion. “I’d take her for any of them any day. Knows what to do right square.” He said. “Figure them to come over to talk to us?”
“Nope.” The other man shook his head. “She’s not like them, though. She’s from here, like we are.” He settled back down on his pallet, carefully adjusting his splinted hand on his chest. “I was by the wagon when she fixed up Ares, yeah? When he got shot by that arrow, so they should hold off talking bad about her.”
Rallas paused, then stared at him intently. “When did that happen?”
“On the march, just after we started.” The man said. “I just remembered it.” He frowned a little. “When she was here with us, it popped up a picture like, up here.” He tapped his head with his un injured hand. “His horse brought him in, you know? That big black one he had with him. Beautiful beast.”
Rallas’ eyes went a little unfocused. “Oh!” He said, in some surprise. “Now I remember the horse! Fine one!” He said. “And the big sword he had.”
“The Sword of War.” The other man nodded, his voice taking on a note of awed respect. “But I was there, by the wagon bringing her water for it. She took a arrow length of my arm out of him, blood everywhere.”
“I musta been somewhere else fer that I guess.” Rallas said. “But them there should watch their tongue, yeah?”
“And she’s a sight easier on the eyes then that lot.” Rallas added.
“Oh for sure!”
Xena eased into the room and closed the door behind her. The five members of the oracles entourage were surrounding him, on their knees and praying with a pot full of incense next to the head of the bed.
She moved around them and knelt herself near the pot, picking up a candle and bringing it closer.
The oracle was barely breathing. His condition had gone visibly downhill, and she suspected that he wouldn’t last out the night.
She sighed soundlessly. Then she set the candle down and refreshed the bandage on his head, picking up a poultice mixture she’d pounded earlier and gently applying it to the broken place on the side of his skull, easing the bit of gut she’d inserted to let some of the pressure inside out.
It was seeping a clear, yellowish liquid, and that probably was why he was still alive. Xena took some of the cleanser she used with wounds and cleaned around it, glancing briefly at the claw marks across his cheek, internally irritated that she couldn’t identify what made them despite her comprehensive knowledge of the area.
“Do you not have another healer who can look at him?”
One of the men had stopped praying and was watching her.
Xena rested her elbow on the edge of the pallet. “We have other healers here in Amphipolis.” She said. “But most of them are used to minor things. I’m the most experienced, and I have more knowledge about battle healing than anyone between here and Athens.”
The man looked at her, his dark eyes visibly skeptical.
“He’s dying.” Xena said, after a moment. “There’s nothing you can do for this that hasn’t been done.”
“I do.” She wiped her hands off. “But if you can find anyone here who has any better ideas, bring em.” She returned his look. “Broken heads have limited options.”
He looked aside. “We should take him up to the altar. Ares is the only one to help him, you are of no use.”
The irony almost made Xena smile. “If you move him, you’ll kill him sooner.” She said, bluntly. “Ares doesn’t live in that shrine. If you think he can help you, just ask him.” She paused. “I’ve known him to lend a hand, if you’re someone he finds interesting.”
All of them had stopped praying at this point, and were staring at her.
“Auralius is our speaker.” The man closest to her said, stiffly. “Only he talks to the great one.”
Xena’s lips twitched just a little. “I’ve spoken to him.” She said. “Half the people in my army have spoken to him. G’wan, give it a try. Worst thing that’ll happen is he won’t listen.” She stood up and motioned for one of the militia medics over. “Lar, bring some cold water in, pack his head with cloths doused in it. Maybe we can get the swelling down.”
“Aye, Xena.” The medic nodded. “I’ll do that.” He moved off to pick up a bucket, and one of the guard joined him, and her most senior army healer came over to stand at her side.
“Keep replacing the poultice. Keep that opening clean.” Xena told the healer.
“Aye, Xena.” He said. “Lucky he is it’s a bit open, and you put that drain in. Woulda been gone long back otherwise.” He regarded the men with a dour eye.
With a shake of her head, Xena left, feeling more than a bit helpless and conscious of the eyes on her back as she went through the door, going into the small room they kept all their supplies in and pausing to look around it. Was there anything else she could do?
Anything else they could do? She poured a cup of wine and sat down at the narrow table, thinking. She glanced at her hand, which still held the healing cut from the offering the other night and rested her chin on her fist, her fingers slowly moving the cup around in a circle.
Did she really even care about this guy?
Footsteps came up behind her and she turned to find her healer there. He came in and took a seat next to her, his grizzled gray hair a tarnished copper in the lamplight from the wall. “Not going to save this one, I’m thinking.”
“No.” Xena agreed quietly. “Not this one, Nilo. Might as well be in there praying as anything else.”
“Should they be asking Ares, Xena? Or Apollo? God of War isn’t much for healing, been my experience.” Nilo said. “But I learned from you my skills and yours mean more than prayers most times.”
Xena remembered, then, talking to Apollo about just that subject, his surprise at her skills and at Gabrielle’s. But Apollo had turned out to be a damned jerk like the rest of them and…
A fragment of memory surfaced, surprising her. A moment and a vision that had gone past the story in the cave, hearing him speak, hearing him say…
Then it was gone. “He’s an oracle of Ares.” Xena said, after a pause. She shrugged, and the healer shrugged as well. “What he should have done was not go up that damn stair in the dark.” She took a sip of her wine, swirling it around in her mouth before she swallowed it. “I’m gonna have to post a guard to keep other idiots from doing that.”
“They didn’t like you saying anyone could talk to him.” Nilo said. “Said it was wrong, that.”
“Don’t give a damn.”
“No, I know.” He rested his hands on the table. “They think us bumpkins.” He smiled briefly, and she returned the smile. “I got my learning in Athens, Xena. Came away from there, I did thinking I knew a lot.” He studied his hands. “I didn’t know how much I didn’t know about this until I came here.”
Xena sighed. “I learned to heal what I learned to inflict.” She mused. “That’s how it started for me, not having any choice.”
Nilo smiled again. “And yet, you do have the gift.” He said. “Moreso than many I saw where I was taught.” He got up and went over to a stack of clothes, taking them up. “Lets try the cooling. I hadn’t thought of that.” He left the storage room, whistling softly under his breath.
Xena scratched her nose, and then she stood and retrieved a wineskin, grabbing two more cups and leaving with it.
There was more than the usual amount of activity at the Amazon gates and Xena detoured from her path upward to approach the cluster of cloaked women standing at the guard station. They turned as she approached and she could see visible relief as she was recognized.
How things changed. “What’s up?” Xena asked, as she came into the torchlight, her tall figure sending a long shadow behind her.
“Glad you’re here, Xena.” Pasi said. “One of the kids is missing, and even Cait can’t find her track.”
Oh. Not expected. “In the village?” Xena asked, after a moment of silence.
“No, they said they saw her go out the gates.” Pasi said. “We thought she maybe went down the hill, you know? Heard all the music and everything.”
Cait wormed her way through the crowd, her face and clothes littered with leaves and dirt. “Nothing.” She said, briefly. “Not in either direction. Hello.” She greeted Xena.
“Who is it?” Xena asked, putting her hands on her hips.
“Cassy.” Cait answered. “She’s been missing since supper.”
Xena considered. “Pasi, get me a piece of the kid’s clothing.” She ordered. “Let me get Ares here to see what he smells of it.” She took a step back and turned her head, letting out a long whistle. “If you can’t find anything chances are I can’t either.”
Cait straightened right up at the profound compliment, her pale eyes widening a bit.
“Got it.” Pasi eased the gate open and headed into the village, and the rest of the guard started to dissipate, clearly glad to leave the problem to Xena’s attention.
After a long moments silence, a long, low howl answered Xena’s whistle and she folded her arms over her chest, glancing at Cait as the other Amazons went into the guard station, and some back into the village.
“The queen went up to your place.” Cait said, after a pause. “Dori and Cari were falling asleep.”
“Yeah.” Xena nodded. “Tell me about this kid. Don’t think I know her much.”
Cait moved closer. “She’s one of the older ones.” She said. “Eponin said she’d probably be in the next bunch to move to junior. She’s a bit dim.”
Cait herself had never been junior, Xena recalled. She’d gone to full warrior because she’d never really been a child with the Amazons. She’d grown up wild, by the time Xena had taken her to the village she’d already been blooded and so, held a somewhat ambivalent view of the younger members. “She that brown haired one? Brown eyes? mid height?”
“Yes.” Cait agreed. “She’s nice, I suppose. She can sing and she’s a bit crafty. She hangs about Renas with her jewelry and the kitchen.”
“Friendly with the rest of the kids?”
Cait considered that. “Yes, I think so.” She offered, with a slight hesitation. “Here’s Ares.”
Pasi wriggled out from the gate at that moment and came over with a bundled piece of cloth. “Here ya go.” She handed it over. “Hey Ares.”
“Groof.” The wolf sat down next to Xena and looked up at her expectantly. She unwrapped the cloth and extendend her hand to let him sniff it. “Can you find that for me, boy?”
Ares stuck his nose into the cloth and snuffled it, then sneezed. He stood up and trotted around in a circle for a minute, running a pattern between the two paths upward and downward, and then going over to the gates and sitting down next to them, looking over his shoulder at her.
“Hm.” Cait frowned. “Everyone said she left out the gates, Xena. Is he sure?”
“It’s his nose.” Xena strode over to the gates and gave the right one a yank outward, allowing the wolf to trot inside and following him, motioning Cait to follow her. “Lets see if we can sort this out before my bath water gets cold.”
Cait suppressed a grin, as she followed along knowing full well Xena had no need of her presence at all. But she was glad to be included just because she was. “Right.” She paused to close the gates and then caught up to the woman and wolf as they reached the center of the village.
It was late, only a handful of Amazons were left around the firepit, relaxing with cups in their hands, and pausing to greet the three as they walked through the area.
Xena’s boots made a rhythmic sound as she crossed the stone verge around the firepit, but she just gave an absent wave as she kept her eyes on Ares, a somewhat difficult task given the darkness and the fact he was almost completely black.
“What do you think might have happened?” Cait asked, as she caught up to Xena’s long strides. “It’s strange, isn’t it?”
“Some kid’s play probably.” Xena said, with a brief smile. “Hide and seek or something.”
Cait’s eyebrows knitted together in a puzzled look. “Excuse me, what?”
“A game. Dori and Cari play it with their cousins sometimes. Most of them hide somewhere and one or other has to find everyone.”
“Oh.” Cait sniffed. “Bit like learning to track then, isn’t it?” She said. “Like what we do with the children, really.”
“Never had that, growing up you see.”
“No.” Xena chuckled dryly. “I did. For a few years, anyway. I sort of remember doing that with Toris and Ly.” She started up one of the side paths that led to the back of the village, towards the depths of the forest that filled in the space between where the living areas were and the wall of the mountain.
There was only sporadic torchlight here, and she blinked a few times as her vision adjusted, leaving the red golden flares behind and bringing the silver and shadow of moonlight into sharp focus.
She could see the outline of Ares trotting ahead, head down, and she opened her mouth a little, drawing in the cool air over her nose and tongue to see if she could detect what he was following, finding the rich green scent of spring growth, and the smell of the dirt path they were walking on, and the slight musk of some small animal off in the bushes.
Nothing of humanity.
Ares left the path and headed into the trees, pausing a moment to look behind him and then going on when he was sure they were following.
Now it was completely dark, save the faint filter of the moon through the still sparsely leaved branches that sent soft splashes across them as they stalked between the trees, silent now, the loamed ground absorbing the sound of their footsteps.
Cait separated her path, going slightly askew as she came up even with Xena, instinctively tucking her cloak away and tying the ends around her as she felt her breathing change, and go more even, her ears pricking as she moved from merely following into a hunter.
There were animals around them, and her fingers tensed a little as she forced herself to ignore them, focusing instead on the very tall figure to her left gliding noiselessly along, head sweeping back and forth, hair put back to expose twitching ears.
There was that elemental wildness about Xena, that difference Cait had always been aware of, that something other and extra, so fearless and confident that everyone else wished they had.
She wondered sometimes if Xena wished she hadn’t got, actually because otherwise right now she’d be up in her bath, possibly having a nice cup of tea and not be here tracking some silly nitwit playing some game.
Ahead, she could smell the creek they got their water from, and hear the sound of it’s motion, and the splash of where it sprang from the rocks in clean, cold emergence, bringing the smell of wet rock and moss to her as they neared.
They reached the edge of the creek and came together, standing behind Ares dark form as he stood on the bank, lowering his big head to sniff the leaves, then lifting it to stare over the water, his nose flaring.
Xena knelt, and examined the ground. “Here.” Her fingertips touched a root barked roughly, and depressions. “Damn I hope that kid didn’t fall in.”
Cait crouched next to her and felt where she could barely see Xena’s hand resting, and nodded. “Yes, a boot made this.” She said. “A small boot, you know. Like they were standing here and slid off. Not like they were dragged.”
Cait got her face down close to the ground, almost tasting the richness of the earth and the residual hint of leather on it, over the bruising of the root which had it’s own peculiar scent. Then she moved back a little and touched the ground further along. “Someone else was here as well.”
Xena put both hands down on the ground and lifted herself up and over the bank, looking back over her elbow at the ground Cait was examining. Then she rotated her body and plunged into the water up to her waist, holding onto the roots. “Two people.”
Cait sat quietly for a moment. “Amazons.” She finally said. “Theres no smell of men here.”
“Amazons.” Xena agreed. “So someone knows what’s up.” She moved sturdily across the creek in the fast flow, her nose twitching a little as the cold water penetrated her clothing as it crept up her body and reached her chest. She spread her arms out for balance as she moved across the rocky bottom.
“Check the bank along there, see if they came out.” She called back over her shoulder. “I’ll check this side.”
“Right.” Cait started along the ground, using more touch and smell then sight to examine the edges of the earth, her fingers finding untouched ground and intact bark, conscious of Ares trotting behind her, snuffling. “Lets find them Ares. C’mon.”
Xena reached the other side, the edge of the creek butting up against the rocks and she put her hands on them to lift herself up out of the water and look, before she brought her boots up and stood, waiting for the water to sheet off her onto the ground as she lightly flicked water off her fingertips.
The cool air puffed against her and sharpened her senses, and she stood still for a long moment, her ears cupped to the breeze, half convinced she’d heard something, but it wasn’t repeated if she had.
She walked along the shore, eyes fastened on the ground searching for signs of something else passing. The rocky ground along the water had dirt and old leaves across it but it was undisturbed except for a scattering of squirrel prints.
“Nothing here, Xena.” Cait called over. “Did they stay in the water, you think?”
“I think.” Xena sighed and went back to the shore, pausing a moment to remove her cloak and dropping it before she dove back into the creek and let the current take her downstream until she’d caught up with Cait, then she slowed herself.
The current was mild, and she stroked casually through it as she searched the banks to either side, passing the long sloping bank with its flat stones where the laundry was done, and the swing in the shallows for children. It was quiet and mostly empty back here, this ordinary living space where the daily life of the tribe happened.
As she moved through the water, she spotted something caught in a root hanging over the bank and she detoured over to it, recognizing a tatty ragamuffin toy and then bypassing it.
Cait was loping along with Ares, half hidden in the shadows when they both hauled up at the same time, hearing a soft, almost inaudible squeal.
Xena stood up in the current and Cait stopped, coming to the edge of the creek to listen, and standing still as Xena raised a hand in warning.
They settled into stillness, only the chuckling of the water sounding for a moment, then they heard it again this thin, terrorized sound. Xena plunged a hand into the water and drew the dagger from her boot top and then started forward again.
Without hesitation Cait swung her legs over the edge of the bank and slid into the creek, drawing her own knife and following. They moved along in silence, as Ares sat down on the bank to watch, ears twitching.
The creek here was a bit deeper, and a moment later they were both swimming in the current, heads above the surface as they swept downstream, listening hard as they now could hear something ahead, whimpering, and as one they started to the left where the sound was coming from.
Xena caught an outthrust root next to a set of boulders and pulled herself up and out of the water in a single motion, climbing up and onto the rocks with Cait just behind her, knife hilts clamped between teeth as they moved together up the moss covered surface towards a gap in the wall.
There was no light, just vague splashes that dappled the rocks and the skin of the hands gripping the surface in confidence like a lizards as they climbed up the rise and came to a level, and then Xena paused, going close to a rock near her head.
“Handhold.” Cait whispered. “The cave there?”
Xena nodded and shifted the knife to her hand as she stood up and went to the gap, turning to one side to ease through the opening, when she paused as she felt a tug on her shirt.
“Let me go.” Cait mouthed. “I’ll fit better.”
Xena smiled very briefly, but stood aside and waited as Cait went in the gap, without question her short and slim figure getting through far easier than she was going to end up doing. She crouched and followed, and they went from silver moonlight to darkness that was pitch for Cait, and somewhat less so for Xena.
She could see the gray outline of the open space forming around Cait’s body, and the darker rock that surrounded them and then they came to a turn, and a puff of air and they knew they were going right as they both detected humanity.
The smell of humanity on the air, and a hint of body oil on the walls they were passing through where a hand had touched, more than once.
They came around that bend and were in a larger chamber, dark, where just a hint of the sound of the creek penetrated and now a soft gasp and whimper sounded very loud, and crisp nearby.
“Hello?” Cait spoke up, body tense, fingers gripped firmly around her knife hilt, very aware of the tall figure behind her. “Who’s there?”
The sound of sobbing answered her. “Don’t hurt.” A very young voice said. “Please. Please. I promise. I’ll do whatever you say just get me out of here.”
Cait instinctively looked behind her even though she couldn’t really see Xena at all, imagining without difficulty the powerful, angular face. “Don’t’ worry, it’s all right.” She turned back around and said. “Let me come over to you.”
Now, it was Xena’s hand on her shoulder holding her back and she moved to one side instead as her companion came past her, walking across the floor of the space they were in.
Xena could smell the fear and she saw a shadow move ahead of her, plastered against a wall. She could smell bruised branches on the floor and felt them under her steps as she knelt, aware of how close the walls were to her, and how small a space this really was. “Are you Cassey?”
A gasp and a hiccup. “Yyyes.” She could see the shadow move, hands come up to cover head. “Don’t’ hurt me.”
“I won’t.” Xena said, in a quiet tone. “Lets just get out of here, okay?”
Cait eased over and knelt. “Cassy it’s all right.” She said. “It’s Cait, you know? And Xena’s here too.”
There was a tiny silence. “Oh.” Cassey gasped, and then she scrambled forward towards them. “You’re not them! Thank the gods.”
Xena knew a moment of perplexed lack of understanding, knowing something was going on but aware of a gulf of ignorance as to what. “Let’s go.” She started guiding them towards the opening, outlined in silver and gray. “Glad we found you.”
“Oh me too.” The girl said, with an entire world of relief in her voice, and then she sniffled hard. “So glad it wasn’t them again.”
Gabrielle sat on the couch, regarding the fire, her head propped up against her fist. Behind her, in the children’s room Cari and Dori were asleep, with their puppies attendant and she was left in quiet with her thoughts.
She was tired. It had been a long day with an abrupt start and now she was faced with a night that ended more unsettled than the day had begun with more questions to answer and situations that were becoming more complex.
Which was a bit like her life was, often. Gabrielle sighed. “It’s neeeeever easy.” She glanced at the door, and then she got up and went over to the fireplace, where a pot of wine was mulling, releasing the rich, herbal scent into the air as she stirred it.
She was barefoot and had an old tunic on, and the windows to her cabin were open to allow the cool breeze in. It ruffled the candles and stirred the oil lamp that was hanging to one side of the fire. There was a pleasant contrast between the chill against her shoulderblades and the warmth of the fire and she put aside her troubling thoughts for a moment to think about her storytelling.
Sometimes, when she got up there she was telling a known favorite, and she knew it was going to be well received. She could see from the first few moments, the smiles and nods, and the audience relaxing because they knew what was coming and welcomed it.
With a new tale, it wasn’t so certain. She remembered way back in the day when she’d keep her eye on Xena in order to judge how her friend was reacting, knowing the appearance of that faint, quirky smile for the sign it was and deeply cherishing it.
If Xena had liked it, after all, she hadn’t really cared much about anyone else. So tonight, when she’d started into her new story, there up on the stage in front of the market her eyes had gone – as they so often had – to the table near the front where her family was and waited until she’d seen that smile.
Still now, after everything and all they’d been through it was really all she’d cared about. Gabrielle smiled, a little, reaching over to remove the top off a small kettle warming, where she’d kept something for them for a late evening snack.
A soft knock came at the door and she put the lid down, moving over to the door and opening it.
It wasn’t locked, there was nothing there to hold it shut, the act of knocking was the major indication that the person wanting access was friendly. “Hey Sol.”
Solari had her cloak on, and an unsettled expression. “Got a minute, Gabrielle?”
“For you, always.” Her queen stepped back and pulled the door all the way open. “What’s up?”
“Got some info on the attack on that guy.” Solari said, unhooking her cloak and taking it off as she entered. “Kinda awful.”
“Ah.” Gabrielle went over to the wine. “Bad enough for a hot cup of this?”
“Got anything stronger?”