A Change of Seasons
“So anyway.” Solari sat back in the chair across from Gabrielle. “I was down in the market, and I was getting a drink when I saw some of those guys from Ithaca sitting around the bar and I sat down next to them.”
Gabrielle nodded in complete understanding. “Sure.”
“They were talking about the oracle, and how they were sure things were going to go sideways if he croaked.” Solari said. “Which I guess he might? That’s what Benny told me.”
“He might. Xe thinks he probably will.” Her queen agreed. “He’s got a fractured skull.”
“Then one of the guys says, well, they should have known because of him getting attacked up at the shrine, that it might all be a scam, you know, on our side, to get people there and steal from them.”
Gabrielle rolled her eyes.
“Heard that before, you know?” Solari said, with a wryly sympathetic grin. “Remember those temples we saw near Athens?”
“But I started listening harder, okay, because one of them said he warned the oracle about what they saw up there. He said, like those other guys didn’t remember, or didn’t believe him… I’m not sure … that he saw a creature in Ares shrine.”
“Like standing up and walking. I’m pretty sure it was one of the fuzzies.” Solari said. “One of the kids, you know? Because he said it was small.”
“Ah.” Gabrielle exhaled in understanding. “Yeah, sure, it could be but…” She paused and looked at Solari. “You don’t think it was one of them that attacked that guy do you? They’re just kids.”
“I don’t know.” Solari said. “I thought it was funny if it was because you know Jess would have said something right?”
“Right.” Her queen paused.
“And I’m guessing he didn’t based on your face.” Solari said. “He knows it’s a big mess with that. He’d say for sure.”
“If he knew.” Gabrielle half turned and regarded the back room, whose door was mostly closed. “Kids are funny sometimes about what they tell you.”
Both she, and Solari used the word funny in the same sense and both knew it.
“I guess that’s true, but I wouldn’t know.” Solari said. “Anyway, the other guy said it wasn’t a problem because the oracle took care of the creature, and the way he said it made me think it was a bad thing.” She finished, a bit awkwardly. “Like they laughed, sorta and said that was what that altar was for.”
Gabrielle sat back, with a puzzled frown. “Sol, regardless of what kids say if something had happened to one of Jess’s we would know.”
Solari shrugged a little bit. “I saw the scratches on that guys face when they were bringing him into the barracks, and you know, it’s around the right size for it. Those kids, I mean.” She held out her hand in a claw like motion. “You know?”
Gabrielle recalled the man’s face, her eyes going unfocused and inward, thinking about the long, curved marks. “Yeah.” She finally said. “It would explain why Xe didn’t recognize them wouldn’t it.” She mused. “I don’t think that would have occurred to her.”
They both regarded each other in a somewhat uncomfortable silence.
“Cait said she saw evidence of a fight up there.” Gabrielle finally said. “She said offerings were thrown around, and she could see some blood on the floor – but you know something? Those scratches could have been from an animal, if that guy was on the ground.”
“Why would he be on the ground?” Solari asked. “They all swear he was attacked on the way down, don’t’ they? Like they were leaving and something was chasing them.” She took a sip from her cup. “Unless there’s more to the story.”
“Yeah.” Gabrielle got up and went to the girls’ room. “Hang on.” She pushed the door open and went inside, going over to Dori’s bed and kneeling. “Hey Dor?”
Gently, she shook her daughter’s shoulder, and a moment later Dori was opening her eyes and blinking. “Mama?”
“Everything’s good, I just want to ask you a question.” Gabrielle sat down on the floor cross legged. “You know when Boo had to run down the mountain this morning to go fix something?”
Dori looked sleepily at her. “Yes, mama.”
“When you went to play with all your friends today, did any of them say anything about something that was .. different, or .. if it was something bad that happened before that, like last night or after we came back from the market?”
Dori sat up, her blanket around her. Buppit the puppy also sat up, and looked solemnly at both of them. “What d’you mean mama? A bad thing?”
Gabrielle thought for a bit in silence. “Like, did anyone tell you any stories about things that happened, maybe people were sneaking around, or having fun climbing in the trees, or down the vines, that kind of thing?”
“No, mama.” Dori shook her head. “Nobody said nothing about that.” She looked over at the other side of the room. “Hey Car!”
Cari was already awake, and now she squirmed out of bed and came over to where Gabrielle was seated. “Hi.” She looked at Dori. “What you do?”
“Anybody tell you a story?” Dori asked. “They do something last night? Something fun?”
Teo trotted over and sat down next to Buppit, as Cari considered. “Like good fun?” She said. “Jersy said the older ones played some tricks with some bugs. Not so fun.”
“In the village.” Gabrielle clarified. “Not up here, or in the town?”
“Yes.” Cari said, confidently. “We were saying hi to Samba and we heard.”
“Dumb.” Dori said. “Always doing dumb things, Mama, like I told you.” She said. “Being mean.”
“Yes.” Cari said, again. “Like they were to me before you tooked me here.”
“Okay. But nothing other than that? Maybe someone saying they were playing up the path from here, or they climbed down the ropes or anything like that?”
Both girls were silent, then they exchanged looks, Cari visibly deferring to her friend, who scrunched up her face in an odd expression.
“You can tell mama. No one’s going to get in trouble.” Gabrielle assured them. “I just want to make sure everyone is safe and can have fun.”
Teo sneezed, and lay down, putting his round head on his paws and looking up at her.
Then the outer door to the cabin opened and Gabrielle recognized both the footsteps and the emotional presence that entered, and she scrambled to her feet, reaching the bedroom door as it was pushed open and Xena was there. “Hey.”
“Hey.” Xena peered past her. “Everything okay?”
“You’re all wet. What happened?” Gabrielle said, at the same time.
“C’mon back out here and I’ll tell ya the whole story.” Xena said. “G’wan back to bed kiddos.”
“Okay Boo.” Dori lay down and pulled her covers up, pointing Cari back to her bed. “Choo. They gonna go yak yak.”
“Okay.” Cari scrambled back into her own bed and lay down with her head on her pillow. “G’night.”
Gabrielle made a note to revisit the discussion in the morning, but she closed the door on the two children and then went to the teapot as Xena sat on the clothing press, spreading her arms out and leaning on them. “What’s up?”
“What’s up?” Xena pointed at the bedroom door.
“You first.” Gabrielle demurred. “I have a feeling it’s going to be a long night.”
Dori waited a moment, then she got up and went over to Cari’s bed, creeping silently across the floor as the puppies watched her with wide eyes. “They all talking.” She said, sitting down on the edge of the bed as Cari sat up to join her. “Mama will come ask again maybe.”
“We should tell mama.” Cari said, looking somberly at her. “About the bad thing.”
Dori made a face. “Don’t want to get our friends in trouble.” She said. “Mama will be mad.”
“Mad at us?”
“No no.” Dori stroked Buppits head, when he came over to see what was going on. “Mama’s never mad at us.” She said. “Like mama got mad at that dumb dude he was doing bad things, she went boom on him.”
“Mama was mad.” Cari agreed. “But its good they made him go away so he leaves the horsies alone.”
Dori nodded vigorously. “That was good. But we don’t want mama mad at our friends.” She stated. “They didn’t mean to do a bad thing.” She scratched her ear and scowled a bit. “I could tell Boo.”
Cari’s eyes opened a bit wider. “That one will get real mad.”
“Boo has a different mad.” Her friend said. “But maybe that’s not good neither.”
“No.” Cari thought a moment, then her face brightened. “Could we tell Cat? Maybe she can tell us what to do.”
Dori looked at her. “Yes!” She agreed. “Good idea, Car! We can do that after we sleep. She’s gonna know what to do, she’s the only one who isn’t dumb down there.” She said. “Better than Eff or Poopoo.”
Cari was nodding, and smiling a little at the praise. She was just starting to really settle in here in her new home and was slowly gaining confidence in the acceptance of her adopted family. “She’s cool.” She pronounced. “Good one there, she’s never mean to anyone.”
“She’s cool.” Dori agreed. “Okay, lets go sleep so mama won’t ask us until after we can talk to Cat.” She got up and went over to her bed, climbing in, then patting the surface. “C’mon, Buppit.”
The puppy jumped up and snuggled next to her with a grunt of pleasure, and she hugged him. Outside the door she could hear voices, all ones she knew. Mama, and Boo, and their friend Solari from the village, all yak yak.
Mama sounded a little mad. Dori listened intently. Something about a cave, and Cassy, and so she relaxed because it wasn’t what mama was asking them about. Probably just something dumb.
She closed her eyes and exhaled.
“Xena, what the Hades?” Gabrielle kept her voice down, looking from her partner to the silently shocked expression on Solari’s face.
Xena came out of the bathing room in a dry tunic, wiping her hands on a piece of linen and picking up a cooling cup of tea from the table.
She sat down on the couch and extended her long, bare legs in front of her. “Hon, I’m just telling you what that kid said.” She took a sip of tea. “She wouldn’t let me touch her, once we got out of that cave and back to the center of the village.” She eyed her partner thoughtfully. “She’s not the brightest kid, but she knows I’m a healer.”
“Where was she?” Solari finally asked.
“In a cave, about five or ten minute’s swim down the creek from the washing area.” Xena said. “Couldn’t see much in there, but I could tell from the approach it’s been used.” She added. “And two people were in there with her. Probably ran out just before we came down the creek, we weren’t being that quiet.”
“Used.” Solari repeated. “Xena I’m a senior scout. I don’t know of any cave anywhere in the back beyond being used for anything. Like, no way.” She said, in a practical tone. “There’s no hot spring, like we had in the old place.”
“No, nothing like that. It was small.” Xena said. “I had to squeeze in. Cait went in ahead of me, she could just fit in the entry standing up.”
“Something with the kids then?” The Amazon pondered. “Maybe a hideout. I remember sometimes the youngers did that, kind of a hideaway sort of thing?”
Xena grunted. “Could be.” She admitted. “Had some branches on the floor, and I could smell pitch and oil.”
“So, what did she say about how she got in there?” Gabrielle asked, watching Xena’s profile shift in the candlelight.
“She just clammed up. Wouldn’t tell me who was in there with her, what the deal was, nothing.” Xena said. “She had some scratches on her, I could smell the blood.”
Gabrielle was briefly silent. “Could this be a part of what Dori was telling me about? Some tricks or something between the older kids?”
Solari considered that. “Well.” She finally said. “You know we’ve got more kids around now than we had in a long time. When I was growing up it was just three or four of us.” She looked over at Gabrielle. “So I heard you were telling Eph about stuff Dori was saying.”
“She said that sometimes, some of the older kids were taken out by other Amazons, and when they came back they were crying.” Gabrielle repeated what she’d told her regent. “Dori thought something bad was happening and she wanted me to do something about it.”
Solari smiled a little. “Well, she’s got the right parents to ask.” She then cocked her head thoughtfully. “Sounds to me like they might be .. yeah, hey maybe they’re inducting them into womanhood.” She looked from her queen to her queen’s consort. “You know.”
There was a brief silence between the three of them. “Um. What?” Xena finally said. “Are you saying what I think you’re saying?”
Solari gave her a brief grin. “I don’t’ know anything for sure, but having some of the juniors, or even the full warriors take kids and teach them how to give and receive pleasure wouldn’t really surprise me, y’know? Gotta learn somehow.” She looked at them. “Right?”
Xena looked at Gabrielle. “Don’t look at me, hon.” Gabrielle responded wryly. “You inducted me into womanhood.” She regarded her partner with deep affection as she started silently laughing. “And taught me everything I know in that regard as well, matter of fact.”
Xena covered her eyes with one hand and shook her head, her whole body vibrating with laughter.
“Well you did.” Gabrielle chuckled a little, herself. “We didn’t have any such tradition where I grew up.” She told Solari. “You were expected to have your first experience on your wedding night.”
Solari’s dark brows contracted sharply. “Say what? How were you supposed to know what to do?”
“Holy Artemis. That explains a lot.” Solari now covered her own eyes. “We made sure that kid the other night knew what was going on. I can’t even imagine what a poop show that would have been otherwise.”
“Yeah, I talked to her.” Xena said. “Wanted to make sure it wasn’t going to be a nightmare for Benny.”
“So anyway. I’ll find out what the scoop is there.” Solari said. “If the kids are coming back crying either its not that or someone’s doing it wrong. I’ll let ya know.”
“Right. Thanks.” Gabrielle leaned against Xena, who was still laughing. “So now lets talk about our other issue.” She said. “How’s the oracle, Xe?”
Xena let the laughter run out and cleared her throat. “Still holding on.” She said. “I have the healers chilling his head, like we did with Eph. Maybe it’s helping.” She reported. “So. Now what’s this other thing? Have to do with him?”
“We think so.” Gabrielle half turned to face her. “Solari heard some of the Ithacans talking, about what they said attacked them.”
“That’s what I was talking to Dori about. They seemed to describe it so it may have been one of Jess’s kids.”
The humor disappeared from Xena’s face at once. “What?”
“I know it sounds crazy, and.. but I was thinking about those marks, Xe, and the size of their hands.” Gabrielle said, in a serious tone. “You know?”
Xena’s eyes shifted, went to the fire in thought, then returned to Gabrielle’s face. “Yeah.” She exhaled. “But I can’t imagine a situation where Jess knew something happened and didn’t tell me.”
“If he knew.”
The next morning was foggy and damp as Xena stepped off the porch and started up the slope from their cabin. The sun had not yet risen, it was just a gray twilight yet as she made her way up, keeping her pace slow, a deliberate placing of her boots on the sketchily outlined dirt path.
Through the trees, past a boulder or two, her eyes sweeping from side to side, examining the earth and the foliage on either side.
She saw nothing of note, nothing but signs of small animals, the imprint of small paws at the base of the trees, one mark that was a larger beast, familiar outlines of big wolf feet, the curved imprint of a wild goat.
All that belonged here, and were well known to her.
Xena took in slow breaths, opening her mouth a trifle to let the air come in over her tongue, ears cupped to catch the sounds of birds hopping on branches and the sudden, startled scratch of squirrel paws clutching bark as one spotted her, and paused to watch her pass.
Xena paused herself, her eyes catching an irregularity about the animal and she went to the side of the path to get a closer look, holding her hand out to the squirrel. “Ch chi.”
The animal came around the side of the tree, at her shoulder level and sniffed, it’s tiny black nose twitching as she fished in a pocket and removed a handful of nuts and berries to offer.
Without hesitating the squirrel scrambled around and climbed onto her hand, stretching its round head forward to nibble a berry from her fingers. “What happened to you, buddy?” Xena could see the long, parallel gouges in the animal’s back, raw skin visible with crusted wounds.
She flicked back in her memory, comparing the scratches to the ones on the oracles face, and her eyes narrowed under twitching brows as she felt a match. “Huh.” She offered the rest of her handful and the squirrel sat on her arm contentedly consuming it.
From front to back, she thought, something had come up on the animal from behind and tried to grab it, had clenched hard with it’s claws and the squirrel had squirmed out of it’s grasp with a twist of its muscular body.
The wounds were healing though, she judged them a few days old and already closed, with no sign of infection, and after the animal finished it’s snack, it sat up on her arm and washed it’s face with it’s small front paws with an inquiring look.
“That’s all, buddy.” She walked closer to the tree and extended her arm near the branch, waiting until the squirrel hopped from her arm to it. “Be careful, huh?”
The squirrel scampered off down the branch, turning to look at her as it reached the trunk, and Xena regarded it thoughtfully for along moment before she turned and continued on her way up the path, between the rock escarpment that bracketed the path, allowing it to wind between them right and then left, and then a steep climb up to an open plateau.
Almost a garden, kind of. A stretch of even space with thick, greening grass and a scattering of fruit trees, incongruous in this wild space. She went to the grove, giving the one nearest the path a pat as she passed, sparing a thought as usual wondering how the trees had ended up there.
It was a weird and wild place to find them, and she’d scoured the area to see if she could find any hint of a dwelling place there, some old stone remnants to indicate some hermit had found a home, and planted a garden up here in the quiet of the wild.
But no. Xena moved past the trees and down a little rise, to the edge of the plateau that overlooked the long valley and river that led long in the horizon past Potadeia, and to the mountain pass that dropped eventually into the expansive lowlands.
It was a nice view. Every once in a while she and Gabrielle would come up here, and have a quiet snack, just watching the river go by down below.
Now, the path was more evident than in the past, since they’d built the shrines. She walked across to the platform built in and among the trees that lined the edge, ropes and braces coiled up and fixed where they’d lowered stone and material once, and which now they used to get access to the shrines without having to climb up the stairs.
Xena examined the platform carefully, running her fingers over the sturdy posts lashed in place. Then she unhitched one of the ropes and let it down, taking hold of it and swinging off the platform as it tumbled down the side of the cliff.
She wrapped her boots around it and let herself down, hand over handing her way along the cliff face, it’s surface flat and striated, without much in the way of handholds and those that might have been chiseled away to prevent any easy climb without the ropes.
A few minutes later she reached the bottom and let the rope go, dusting her hands off on her leggings as she paused to listen, head cocked.
The shrines were built half back into the mountainside, half constructed out with stone from the area and aged timber from its slopes. Xena walked silently across the ground as the sun started to rise, hearing the wind thump her rope against the wall behind her.
There was no sound of anything save her aside from that. She moved from the earth over rock surface to the gravel they’d lined the front of the shrines with, shattered stone made from the making that generated a soft crunching sound under her boots.
She started on one side of the area, at a slow pace examining the ground, pausing occasionally to turn a bit of gravel over with the toe of one boot to look underneath it, as the light brightened and started to cast a few shadows from the outside fence over the ground.
Inside Aphrodite’s shrine, the pungent and perhaps over ripe smell of flowers and the first fruits lain on her altar, and the smell of wood and clay, offerings from the hands of young lovers, little pots and tiny dolls, here and there a colorfully fired dish.
She searched the shrine, the altar, the floor, finding no hint of disturbance, of a fight, no smell of blood on the air or stain on the stone.
She went to the altar and rested her hands on it, allowing a moment of personal affection and acknowledgement of this god who had been such a surprisingly significant part of her life. Here, alone with only herself and the shrine she smiled, leaning over and kissing the surface before she straightened and moved on.
She walked outside and studied the ground between the shrines, moving over to the rock she’d once stood on to begin their christening and walking around it.
Here she found something. The gravel was in disarray, small mounds pushed to either side, and she knelt and touched it with her fingers, looking at the shape of the mound and the evidence of a bootheel being dug in. Her eyes went to the surface of the rock and pausing.
Blood. She slid over to the rock and touched the surface, the dew cold against her skin as she inspected the crevices that held the telltale stain, the scent very evident to her as she looked at how it spread, a volume that had come from a large wound, dripping down across the rock to the ground on half of one side.
How in the Hades had anyone missed this? Xena felt her brows creasing, and an unpleasant prickle up her spine. She stood up and swept the area between the rock and Ares’ shrine, seeing tiny specks of rust, and, now that her nose expected it, the stale smell of sweat and blood still a faint fragrance on the damp air.
Continuing on, she walked up to and into the shrine, with it’s iron edge and deep blood scent that permeated the air inside.
Here, she expected gore and the smell of rust, both from the hammered iron inside and the heavy crust of dried blood offering on the surface of the altar.
Here it felt sharp, and harsh, and male. There was nothing gentle or bright here, no flowers or offerings other than of metal and self.
She ignored both, and searched the ground intently, from the edge of the altar to the wall and behind the weapons rack, the slate surfaces and the small brazier that was right now still and cold.
She paused to regard the inner lit glow of the altar, turning over her hand to look at the closed line of her new scar, already healed. Then she turned and looked around the inside of the shrine, trying to see what she could sense about it.
Gently she rubbed her thumbs against her index fingers, walking away from the altar and stepping back out of the shrine and into the new morning sun that splashed over her as she crossed the frontal area and went to the edge of the cliff, to the gate, where the steps stretched down towards the river.
The ground between the rock and the gate was well traveled and she saw nothing of interest until she reached the gate and put her hands on the frame of it, peering past and down at the steps. Below her, near the bottom of the chiseled stairs she saw moving figures heading upward, but she judged she had time to get midway and back before they met.
She stepped through the gate and started down the stairs, examining the stone and the rock wall, seeing chips gouged out exposing freshly cut rock from time to time. At one point she stopped, seeing a large chunk taken out of the wall, and next to it, a blood stain.
As though there had been fighting. She mimed drawing her sword and checked the angle, cocking her wrists as she brought her arms around in a circle, judging a strike against the wall.
No, unless someone had smashed their hilt against it. She drew her fists up and back down, then she nodded a little to herself. Yes, someone had fought here, and in a blocking move, driven their hilt against the wall or had it driven, smashing their hands against the stone.
She thought back to the oracle, who’d shown no damage to his hands. She pressed the back of her hand against the stain, then she went down a step and used the other hand. In both cases, she felt the angle was wrong, and she shifted her stance to a more natural one for her and put her hand against the rock again, this time a foot higher.
Hm. Was this where the oracle had been attacked? She looked up to judge the distance. Everyone had said it had been midway – or was it that he’d fallen from midway? She turned around again and studied the ground, but wind and weather had scoured the rock of any further sign.
She peered at the bloodstain, finding a few dark hairs glued into the stain, wiry hairs likely male, and human. She scraped a few out and stuck them in her belt pouch, then continued forward.
Below, she could see the figures toiling up the steps picking up their pace, one pointing at her in silent indignation. With a sigh, she took the next few steps at a ramble, wanting to get her search done before she had to argue with anyone about it.
A dozen steps further she saw more broken rock, and now she knelt again and found gore crusted on the edge of rock, and as she did she felt her own boots slide a little and she grabbed at the ground to steady herself, then she sat down and put her fingers on the stone.
There was a slippery substance there. She lifted her fingers and detected the scent of grease, a bit tallow scented, with a hint of herbs at the edge that reminded her of the crushed mint Gabrielle had made her morning tea from. “Huh.”
Tentatively, she picked up her foot and put her heel down on the substance, feeling how slick the surface was as her boot came off the front of the stone and in her head, she could imagine someone loosing their footing, their feet coming out from under them and then…
She leaned back, and let her head rest on the next step up, sliding her eyes to see how the stain lined up.
Yes. She sat up and held one hand up to warn the oncoming accolytes. “Hey, hold on there.” She said. “There’s something slippery on this rock.”
The closest man was a half dozen steps down from her, with a small battle ax clutched in one hand.
Xena rocked back and got her weight off her legs, ready to kick him if he did something as stupid as it seemed like he was going to do. “Don’t.” She warned. “You’ve seen what happens when someone falls down these steps.”
It was one of the men from Ithaca. “They stopped us from coming up the other way.” He said. “Now the oracle is dead, and we’ve taken too long to make our offering.”
Xena stared at him. “Says who? I saw him last night and he was hanging on.” She said. “His wounds were healing.”
“Says his accolytes.” The man shot back. “This morning, they came to the inn and proclaimed it, but had nothing to do with his wounds, someone strangled him.”
Xena blinked. “What?”
The others had caught up and were peering around the first at this blockade to their path. “Yes it’s true. He’s dead.” The man told her. “But we came to offer anyway, though it’s no use now.”
Xena scrambled to her feet and scraped the bottom of her boot off. “Watch that area.” She pointed. “It’s what he slipped on. I gotta go.” She turned and started up the stairs, taking them two at a time as her mind raced over the import of the news.
“Okay you kiddos.” Gabrielle finished buckling the tooled leather belt around her waist. “Remember the story you were going to tell me last night? Let’s hear it.”
Dori was sitting on the couch with Buppit on her lap, upside down enjoying a morning belly rub. “Okay mama.” She watched Cari eye her in some alarm, and she winked at her solemnly. “You won’t be mad right?”
Gabrielle came over and sat down on the couch, her Amazon leathers almost blending with the leather covered surface. “Mad at you? Never.” She smiled at her daughter. “Remember what Boo always says? We should always just tell the truth, right?”
“Yes, mama.” Dori said dutifully. “But not get our friends in trouble?”
Oh, hm. Gabrielle studied the grave green eyes watching her, as Cari came over and sat down on the bear skin rug. Teo came over and sat down next to her, head cocked. “Did your friends tell you a secret, Dor? Or is this something you and Cari saw yourselves?”
Dori pondered that. “We saw.” She finally said, reluctantly.
“Okay. Well, if your friends tell you secrets, you should keep them.” Her mother said. “Unless it could make them get hurt, right? If something is dangerous, like you found a place where people could get hurt, or you found a poison animal, you should tell mama because it could be bad. Right?”
Dori nodded. “Can make owie.”
“Right.” Gabrielle said. “But this wasn’t like that, was it? It wasn’t a secret?”
“No, mama.” Dori played with Buppit’s paws, which were waving at her. “We went down to the new place.” She finally said. “With the ropes.”
Her mother blinked. “You climbed down the cliff?” She asked in some astonishment. “Who was there, honey?”
“Us and the peoples.” Dori gestured with her thumb towards the rear of the cabin. “We were playing and they said what was down and we saw the ropes.” She watched her mother’s expression. “You didn’t say no, mama!”
Gabrielle covered her eyes briefly. “Did you ask me?” She looked between the two girls, noting the Cari was keeping prudently quiet. “Doriana?”
“No, mama.” Dori admitted, with the faintest of roguish expressions. “But it was fuuuuuuun.”
“Scary.” Cari added after a moment.
“Fuuuuuuuuuuun.” Dori repeated, unrepentantly.
Gabrielle saw the little grin on Dori’s face, and in that moment saw an utterly clear reflection of Xena in her, right down to the cocky little tilt to her head. “Okay.” She put that aside. “So you little bandits climbed down the ropes to the shrines. I get it. Then what?”
“We looked around.” Dori said. “We found some stuff inside the caves.” She kicked her booted feet out, making Buppit bounce. “There was a aminal there, mama.”
“An animal. What kind of animal?” Gabrielle kept her voice even and light, just mildly interested. “A big animal?”
“A goats.” Cari spoke up. “It was tied up.”
“I see. So what happened then?” Gabrielle watched the two girls look at each other. “Did you let the goat loose?”
“No, mama. Wanted to.” Dori admitted. “But the peoples were hungry. They killed it, and ate it up.”
Ah. Not quite what she’d expected. “Oh, I see.” She murmured.
“We didn’t.” Cari clarified. “It was yuk.” She made a pushing out motion with her hands, and stuck her tongue out. “Smell and gross.”
Dori nodded. “I got mad. Didn’t want them to hurt the aminal and they killed it.” She looked mournful. “But they were hungry mama.” She looked up at Gabrielle plaintively. “Like Guff does.”
“Hm. Well.” Her mother frowned a little. “I’ll talk to their father about that. It’s fine to be hungry, but that goat didn’t belong to them, and that’s not right, right?”
Dori made a face, but she nodded.
Seeing the exchanged looks, Gabrielle leaned forward a little towards them. “What else?” She coaxed gently. “Did you try some of that?”
“No mama!” Dori’s eyes opened wide. “Gross!”
“We ate the cookies in the other place.” Cari finally spoke up. “They was good.”
Dori made a face, then grinned. “That was good.” She acknowledged. “Was in a basket just sitting there mama.” She said, in a practical tone. “Was gonna be eat by the squirrels anyhow.”
And that pragmatic attitude was also Xena’s image. “That’s probably true, honey, but those cookies were given to someone else, so it’s not right to take them.” She saw the alarmed look on Cari’s face. “Even if they were just sitting there.”
“Mama, that’s silly.” Dori wasn’t fazed. “You leave cookies someplace someone’s gonna eat them.”
Gabrielle sighed internally. “That place down there is special.” She said. “When things get left there, they are for some special friends of ours, so we shouldn’t take them, okay? You know the pictures in there? You know those people, Dor.”
“No one was there, mama.” Dori said. “Was empty. Those peoples weren’t there.”
“I know, but its their place.” Gabrielle said. “You wouldn’t take cookies from Grandmas place, would you?”
“Sure.” Dori said, and Cari giggled. “Gramma’s cookies are the best!”
“Okay. Well, let’s talk about this later. In the meantime, I don’t’ want either of you to go down the ropes again. It’s dangerous, and you could have gotten really owie.” Gabrielle said. “I’m going to talk to your friend’s papa, so he can tell them the same thing. Understand me?”
“Yes, mama.” Dori said. “We won’t’ go down the ropes no more. It was hard.”
“Really hard.” Cari agreed, with a nod. “And made the doggies bark, they couldn’t do.” She scratched Teo behind his ears and he wiggled in pleasure. “No like.”
Gabrielle stood up and regarded her two little pirates. Half of her was relieved that the situation had been so innocent, half of her was horrified at the thought of those kids climbing up and down the ropes. “Next time you want to climb, just climb a tree, okay?”
“Okay mama.” Dori said, dutifully. “We’ll be good.”
Uh huh. Gabrielle went to her desk and settled behind it, drawing over a parchment and sharpening one of her quills. “You can go play if you want to, but remember, stay away from that cliff.”
“Yes, mama.” Dori got up and trotted to the door, with Cari and both dogs behind her. “Let’s go!”
After they left, Gabrielle had to sit back and just chuckle, albeit ruefully. “Xe’s going to freak out.” She predicted, folding her arms over her chest in reflection. “Or maybe not.” She added. “She’d have eaten those cookies too, in a heartbeat.”
The climbing down on the ropes, on the other hand.. she was surprised that Cari had managed it, frankly, and for her it had been the most dangerous thing to do because both Dori and her forest dweller friends took their energetic strength for granted.
Then she heard boots on the ground and she got up, making it halfway to the door before it was bumped open, and Xena’s tall form filled the opening. “Hey, find an… “ She stopped on seeing her partner’s face clearly. “Uh oh, what’s wrong?”
“Yeah, found stuff.” Xena said. “More important, the Ithacan’s were climbing up the steps and told me the oracle died.”
Gabrielle’s eyes opened up, and she reached for her boots. “Oh, crap.” She said, tugging one on. “I thought you said he was holding on?”
“I did. He was strangled.”
Gabrielle paused in mid lace tie. “What?”
Xena closed the door behind her and went to the cider barrel. “Not sure why I’m rushing. If the guy’s dead not much I can do.” She poured herself a cup. “Siddown and do that before you fall over.”
“What?” Gabrielle ignored the advice and pulled on the other boot. “Xena, how can that have happened and no one came up to tell us?”
“Damn good question.” Xena put her cup down and went to her arming press, removing her sword in its sheath and attaching it to the catches on the back of her leathers. She then added three daggers, one to each boot and one in the small of her back before walking over to the corner and grabbing Gabrielle’s staff.
“Ugh.” Gabrielle finished tying her boots and ran her fingers through her short cropped hair. “Okay, let’s go.” She held her hand out and caught the thrown staff, following Xena as she went out the door. “Let me go tell Jessan to keep an eye on the kids.”
She ran lightly around the corner of the cabin while Xena stood in the sunlight, bouncing up and down on the balls of her feet. After a moment, she drew her sword and started an exercise with it, making figure eights with the weapon.
It felt good to stretch out and she widened the pattern, the steel of the blade making a faint whipping sound in the morning air. A moment later Ares came trotting out of the forest, sitting down near one of the gnarled pine trees to watch her.
Xena smiled at him, winding down her drill as she heard Gabrielle coming back from around the spring behind the cabin and sheathing the sword as Jessan appeared with her. “Hey.”
“What’s going on?” Jessan asked.
“Tell you on the way down.” Xena said, turning to head for the path. “But your guys know to keep the kids away from the ridge, right?”
“Sure!” Jessan fell in beside her and they all started a half walk, half ramble downhill. “But you’re serious? They climbed down to the shrines?”
“According to Dori.” Gabrielle gripped her staff, carefully keeping it from catching on the rocks that lined the steep path up to their cabin. “Just messing around, you know?”
“Sure.” Jessan agreed. “But wow.”
“Yeah.” Xena grunted. “Found some marks up there, blood and a place where there was a scuffle. Then a step partway down where I can see someone slipped on some grease and hit their head on the rock.”
Gabrielle was briefly silent. “Didn’t we send people to look around up there?” She asked. “I didn’t hear anything about that from anyone.”
“Mm.” Xena kept her eyes on the trail. “What’s that old saying? If you want something done right do it yourself?”
Jessan chuckled audibly.
Gabrielle related the rest of the tale Dori and Cari had told her. “We should probably teach them not to steal from shrines to the gods.”
Jessan seemed bemused, as they crossed the hanging bridge and then came down to the plateau that held the gates to the Amazon village. “If I didn’t know what it was, I’d have taken that goat too.” He admitted. “I mean, we are what we are, y’know?”
“Hey, my kids took Aphrodite’s cookies. I get it.” Gabrielle waved at the guard as they passed. “But if we’re supposed to be respecting them…”
“Kids don’t know.” Xena said. “I’d have taken those cookies, and I do know better.” She took the lead. “Lets worry about the oracle first. If he got whacked in my barracks I’m guessing I got some kind of real problem.”
“No one came up to tell you?” Jessan sounded shocked.
“Two real problems.”
Gabrielle kept her eyes on the crowd as they came down through the town towards the barracks. Aside fom the usual, casual greetings she detected nothing out of the ordinary in anyone’s attitudes though and as they reached the turn off to the barracks the soldiers who spotted them only smiled and waved.
“Morning, genr’l.” One of the grooms called, as he led two horses to the river path. “Grand day for races.”
Xena and Gabrielle exchanged looks, and Jessan peered past them. They entered the end gate of the barracks and ducked inside the closest door, passing through the arming room and through the large sparring hall, this early quite empty.
The healer’s area was quiet, and growing more and more puzzled, Xena pushed open the inner door to the private chamber she’d last seen the oracle in, injured but alive.
The oracles entourage was surrounding the bed, blocking vision, visibly upset, weapons drawn. The healers facing them turned on hearing them enter, looking relieved to see her.
“Xena.” Her senior spread his hand out. “They won’t let us near the pallet. Not for candlemarks!”
“Keep away from here.” The tallest of the entourage held a hand up. “Halt. We have sent to Therma for a judge. He must have justice.”
“Justice for what?” The healer asked. “He fell down a damn mountain!”
“Ares himself is under attack!” The man said. “First that, then… “He glanced behind him. “We’ve sent to his temple in Therma for the high priest to judge!”
Xena didn’t slow down. She drew her sword as she walked and gripped it in her fist. “Move.” She ordered the man.
The man drew his sword and braced, his chin jutting out at her. “Ares protect me!” He raised the weapon to meet hers, and a moment later it was flying across the room as Xena backhanded it away with a powerful swipe.
He grabbed his stinging hand and then drew a dagger as the rest of them came to his support and made a solid wedge between Xena and the pallet. “Stay back, I warn you!”
Xena twirled her sword in her hand. “Back at ya.”
The nearest healer let out a whistle, and the inner door to the barracks burst open, a half dozen militia coming inside having heard the ring of Xena’s sword and recognizing it’s distinctive timbre. They headed for the retinue and drew weapons as Xena disarmed the tall man of his dagger and nailed him on the chin with her elbow. “Don’t kill em.” She yelled. “Just get them out of my damn way!”
“Aye gen’rl.” The soldiers swarmed over in their direction, leaping over the spare, empty pallets and wooden carts full of healing supplies.
One of the retinue came at her with a curved, foot long knife and she caught the edge of it on her sword, deflecting the blow as Jessan came to cover her back and Gabrielle took the other side, swinging her staff and smacking the man facing Xena on the side of the head.
He went down and dropped the knife, exposing the man behind him to a blow from Jessan’s sword hilt and then Xena sheathed her sword and engaged a third, grappling with him and twisting him into a wrestling hold. She ducked and got a shoulder into him, yanking him up and over her back to dump him on the ground with a heavy thud.
The healers grabbed hold of him and yanked him backwards, yelling and scrambling. Jessan took a step backwards and slammed him on the side of the head with his big fist.
Now Xena was clear to see the pallet as the militia surrounded the rest of them, and she dropped to one knee next to it, hearing Gabrielle come up behind her and turn, standing off anyone approaching, her boots braced on either side of Xena’s legs.
The oracle was dead. She took in the gray, waxy skin and the staring, slightly bulging eyes and didn’t bother holding a piece of steel or skin to his mouth to see if any breath remained, it was obvious to her he was some time gone.
He hadn’t gone quietly. She could see his hands, curled into claws held stiffly against his chest, tips of the fingers and nails stained with rust and on his neck were the distinctive bruises of big fingers and a heavy thumb, indenting into the skin and crushing the windpipe.
His mouth was partially open, and the tongue protruded, dark and purpled.
“What in the Hades!” A low, gruff voice echoed behind her, and she heard more boots entering, the room becoming crowded with militia. “Xena, what’s gone on here?”
“Someone wrung his neck, Benny.” Xena rested her elbow her upraised knee. “About two candlemarks ago. I need ot know who came in and out of here.” She turned and regarded her captain. “And why no one said anything.”
Bennu came to her side and stared at the man, wide eyed. “Be damned.”
“Oh yes, you will!” One of the entourage raged, held between two of the militia. “When the law gets here, we’ll get justice for him. Never fear, you witless farmers!” He twisted back and forth. “The law, and the God of War will take vengeance for him!”
“I say she did it!” One of the others said. “Those shrines – they’re just to bring in suckers to milk!”
Xena regarded them. “Take them out of here.” She told the soldiers. “Lets see if we can figure out who did this.”
“No doubt at all.” The first man said, preparing to spit at her. He stopped when a blade pressed against his throat, and drew in a sharp, surprised breath. “You dare.”
“Aye.” Redder said, in a solemn tone. “Ah do dare, as you’re talking crazy. Genr’l wasn’t down t’the town this morning till now.” He pressed the knife against the man’s skin. “Thinking it was one of you lot done it. Maybe you want to be the talker, eh?”
“True that.” Bennu said. “S’why no one heard of it. Done it themselves.”
“That’s blasphemy.” The second man said. “We are Ares’s priests, his accolytes. Why would we kill our leader?” he spluttered. “He was the oracle! He spoke to the gods!”
“God of War?” Redder eyed him. “Likes killing, he does. Whole point aint it?” He smiled without humor at the man. “Maybe not so much talkin.”
“Maybe you wanted to take his spot.” Bennu added. “Get ya paid more, eh? That’s what you were saying at he bar last night.”
“Bastard.” The man twisted in Redder’s grip.
“Ah now. Lets get ya out the door for the genr’l neuter’s ya.” Redder sheathed his knife and yanked the man towards the door, and the four militia who had the other three men followed, leaving the room in moderate silence.
Everyone returned their attention to Xena, who was still kneeling. “Wouldn’t have wasted my time gelding him.” Xena remarked, shaking her head. “Benny.”
Bennu finished giving one of the scouts instructions, then he came over and crouched on the other side of the pallet from Xena. Jessan joined him and Gabrielle turned and leaned on her staff, her face tensing into a slight grimace as she regarded the dead man.
“Bad.” Bennu said, after a brief silence. “Think Redder had it?” He asked. “Them gits were tongue waggin free all over the bar down the market.”
Xena regarded the corpse, drawing the linen covering him down a bit and examining the marks on his throat. “Coulda been. Those are big hands that did that.” She put her own fingers over the marks, the bruises longer and wider than her grip.
“Aye.” Bennu reached over, and imitated her, his grip matching hers, but not the marks. “But coulda been from leaning on it.” He flattened his hand a little making a pushing motion.
“Damn.” The militia captain shook his grizzled red head. “Didn’t figure this, though.”
“No, me neither.” Xena sighed. “They went off and told the Ithacans, who hiked up the steps to the shrines.” She rested her arm on her thigh. “Unpleasant surprise.” She eyed her captain.
“Bennu, how could this have happened and no one knew, except the Ithacans?” Gabrielle asked. “Seems crazy to me that we got all the way here and no one said a thing.”
The healers had been standing by and now the senior one cleared his throat. “We weren’t sure what was going on.” He said. “Just that they wouldn’t let us near him. We didn’t know he was dead. We just got here, and were going to treat him.”
The remaining soldiers nodded. “Didn’t say nothing, genr’l.” One said. “They was praying around him from sunup, and we left em alone.”
“They went to the inn a bit, one or two of them, then they came back.” The healers agreed. “But they stayed around him, had incense going and all that.” He held out his hands. “We didn’t know.”
“Them’s fussed, down by the market.” One of the militia said. “Was wondering what got them stirred.”
Xena stood and put her hands on her hips, regarding the dead man on the pallet. “Well.” She looked around. “Wrap him for a pyre. Nothing we can do for him now.” She said. “See if we can find anyone who saw anything.”
“Let me go warn the Amazons in the market.” Gabrielle said. “Meet you back at your mom’s.”
“What the Hades is going on?” Cyrene greeted Xena as she entered, several of the town elders around her turning to face her. “Some guys down in the market said we’ve been cursed?”
Xena came over and perched on the edge of the family table. “Someone offed the oracle.”
“Yeah, well.” Her daughter shrugged. “They can say what they want, but they’ve got as much chance of having done it as anyone.”
“They think you did it.” Cyrene said. “Or one of the soldiers.”
“I was in bed with Gabrielle all night.” Xena stated, frankly. “I was up by the shrines this morning looking for signs of what happened and if it had been me I’d just say so.”
The elders nodded. “We said that.” One of them said. “Did you find anything?”
About to say no, Xena then dug into her belt pouch. “Bout the tenth step down, something slippery on the rock.” She withdrew a bit of cloth she’d rubbed the substance on and handed it over. “I can see where he hit his head on the edge of the step. Blood crusted on it.”
The elder sniffed the cloth, his brow creasing. “What does that remind me of?” He handed it to one of the others. “Xena, this could be a lot of trouble.” He said. “They were talking about bringing in some high priest.”
“Yeah.” Xena sighed, and folded her arms over her chest. “They get involved, it’s a mess. They don’t get involved, it’s a mess. Figures.”
“The gods?” Cyrene smiled briefly.
“Oh.” The eldest elder, a wizened women who tended the town garden had taken the cloth. “I know what this is. One of them merchants bought some mint and hyssop from me for it.” She looked at the rest of them. “For the men, y’know.” She made a gesture with her fist. “Y’know?”
The other elders looked elsewhere and Cyrene shifted through a few expressions.
“Got it.” Xena said, succinctly. “Well, that puts a different spin on things.”
“Eyup.” The elder agreed. “Want me to find that merchant for ya?”
“Don’t’ let him sell you anything.” Cyrene advised. “Snake oil, if you ask me.”
Gabrielle saw the crowd near the stage as she crossed the bridge, and she was glad she had her staff with her as she read the body language.
They were clustered around two men who seemed to be doing a lot of the talking, and the townsfolk were watching them warily from the fringes and they had that restless energy she’d seen in crowds half the world over when passions were being stirred.
She was conscious of the rush of the river as she walked along the bridge and she glanced over the side of it, noting the level was rising. Not unexpected given the levels of snow they’d seen in the winter but damned inconvenient if they were going to have a flood like the last one. “Crap.”
The bridge had been built up further and far more sturdily than the last time though, and she had a slope to descend to the end of it that extended much past the banks on either side. So maybe it would stand the waters, this time.
Cait saw her as she got to the edge of the market and swiftly ran over, the rest of the Amazons gathered around their stall with arms crossed as they looked on. “Gosh I’m glad you’re here.”
“What’s up?” Gabrielle asked.
“It started in the food stalls. Some of that oracle’s lot came down and told everyone the oracle had been murdered.” Cait said, straightforwardly. “Two of them rode off. The Ithacans rode off as well.” She said. “Then everyone started talking, you know? Saying absolute nonsense.”
Gabrielle glanced behind her, to see a group of militia starting to drift down from the barracks area. “Well, the oracle is dead.” She said. “He was strangled. That part’s true.”
“Oh.” Cait looked surprised. “Really?”
They reached the Amazons stall and joined the group. “Trouble.” Renas stated briefly.
“It wants to be.” Gabrielle answered. “Someone decided the oracle didn’t need to survive his fall apparently. He’s been choked to death.”
“Crap.” Paladia grunted. “When?”
“Musta been sometime this morning.” Renas said. “I talked to the boys last night, he was still kicking.” She frowned. “But from what Ian said, was a touchy thing for him surviving anyhow not sure why anyone would bother.”
Solari and Nala arrived, fully armed. “Eph sent us down.” Solari said. “Guys at the gate said there was some trouble going on.”
One of the merchants from the town came over, seeing Gabrielle. He was wiping his hands on a cloth that he then slung over his shouder. “Morning, Gabrielle.”
“Hello, Elias.” Gabrielle responded. “How’s business?”
The baker made a face. “Was great, until today.” He said. “That lot’s mad about the feller that got hurt, and no one’s buying this morning.” He folded his big arms. “Shame, what happened.”
“They were saying it happened up the barracks?” Elias said. “Said it was Xena who offed him.”
“Not true.” Gabrielle said, in a calm tone. “Xena had nothing to do with it.”
Elias shrugged. “Just saying what they said.” He glanced around. “Going to bring my wagon back up to the town much more of this.” He turned and made his way back to his stall, where a helper was standing, watching the crowd uneasily.
Gabrielle sighed. “Let me go talk to them.” She eased off leaning on her staff and started for the stage, unsurprised when Cait, Solari and Nala immediately fell in on her heels. She knew they knew she didn’t really need a guard, but she was glad of them as they got closer to the crowd and she could sense their outrage.
She straightened her back as she reached the edge of the stage, standing square and in balance as she wrapped her hand around her staff and grounded it. “What’s the problem here, folks?” She kept her voice level and no nonsense.
One of the men turned and looked at her. “Strange doings.” He said, bluntly.
Gabrielle nodded. “Happens around here sometimes.” She agreed. “We have a history of the unusual here in Amphipolis.” She took a step forward, moderating her body posture and wrapping her hands around her staff, using it to support her weight. “But how does that bother you?”
She let her eyes slowly scan the crowd with apparent casualness. There were merchants, yes, quick and sharp to find an angle and turn outrage to their own advantage but she could also see people from the surrounding countryside with alarmed and slightly bewildered expressions.
Strangers, who had been drawn to town for the market, from the merchant trains traveling through the area, from word of mouth. Staid and conservative, as her own parents had been in Potadeia.
The man paused, and eyed her. “What do you mean?”
“Well.” Gabrielle looked around and then back at him. “You came here to sell your wares, true?”
He nodded reluctantly.
“So, why does what happened to the oracle affect you? Did people stop buying?” She asked, in a reasonable tone. “Don’t get me wrong, it bothers me that someone got hurt, and then someone else took advantage of that for unknown reasons but why does that mean a problem for the market? You all still have things to sell. People here still want to buy things.”
“It’ll be bad luck.” The hide merchant spoke up. “Oracle comes here to worship, and gets kilt? Gods’ll take vengeance no question!” He turned and gestured around him. “All of us are under it!”
The crowd murmured in agreement.
“That doesn’t make sense.” Gabrielle said. “Why would the gods do something to get back at you?” She asked. “You would think if they wanted to be angry and someone they’d be angry at the person who did it, right? If they thought they were dissing Ares, I mean.”
“Why else would he be killed?” The first merchant asked. “And by one of your own we hear!”
“We don’t know who killed him.” Gabrielle said.
“You’d say that, sure.” The hide merchant took a step closer. “Being it’s your unnatural family, as it.”
Gabrielle regarded him thoughtfully. “We don’t know who killed him.” She repeated. “But I do know it wasn’t anyone in my family. It’s going to be interesting to find out who did, though.” She shifted her body a little. “And why.”
“Course you’d say that.” The merchant said. “We’ll see when the temple law gets here, and finds out what happened, that’s for sure.” He said. “Meantime maybe we should hold all our coin to us.”
“You’re idiots.” Paladia, who had come up behind Cait suddenly said. “We already made our bones. Its you who has stuff left to sell.”
“Aye.” Redder arrived, a little out of breath. “Maybe you’ll get none of ours, and you can pack it on down the road.” He glanced at Gabrielle. “Sorry to butt in, ma’am.”
“You can’t force us out!” The merchant sounded outraged. “We’ve got rights!”
“Course we can, ya gobbit.” Redder said. “We’re a army.” He gestured back to the barracks. “What’cha think?”
The man now looked a bit uncertain, and he turned around to test the temper of his companions. Most were silent, some looked doubtful. He turned with a sour face. “We’ll wait to see what the temple law says.” He grumbled. “But if it turns out all were drawn here and suckered in, we’ll have our price.”
Gabrielle shook her head a little. “Okay then folks – go about your business.” She made a pushing back gesture with one hand. “Move along.”
Reluctantly, they complied, many watching her, and Redder with a dour look as they slowly went back to their stalls, muttering under their breaths, not yet ready to resist just yet.
“Buggers.” Redder grunted. “All of em out to get extra coin.”
“They should just shut up and sell stuff then.” Paladia said. “Those yonks from Ithaca stirred them all up.”
“Yeah?” Gabrielle regarded her. “Lets go grab some tea and you can tell me about that.”
They walked back over to the Amazon’s stall, and gathered around the iron brazier that was pushing off the morning chill. After a few minutes, the regular motion of the market grudgingly resumed, and Elias the baker grunted in approval as a few of the visitors wandered over to see what he had to sell.
“Blowhard.” Renas jerked her head in the direction of the baker. “First one to start complaining this morning.” She kept her voice low. “He makes a good bun, though, give him that.”
“I don’t get what the big deal is.” Solari poured hot water over some herbs in her cup.
“I don’t get why everyone thinks Xena killed him.” Gabrielle frowned. “It’s ridiculous.” She paused, sensing the silence and looked around at everyone looking back at her, brows creased. “What?”
Everyone swiveled and looked at Cait, whose pale gray eyes widened a bit. “Well.” She cleared her throat. “You know, Xena is quite good at killing people.”
Gabrielle pinched the bridge of her nose. “I know that.” She said. “But she usually does it for a reason.” Her jaw tensed a little bit. “It’s not just a random reflex.”
“She didn’t mean to diss big X.” Solari commented. “The guy was a jackass. I don’t think even his dudes liked him.”
“That’s true.” Renas agreed. “And, what they were saying was something about that dead guy knowing something, and he was killed so he wouldn’t tell everyone.” She shrugged. “I guess they figured Xena did it because.. I dunno? She wouldn’t want anyone to know whatever it was?”
Gabrielle sat in silence for a moment. “Having something to do with the shrine you mean?”
“Yeah.” Renas said, and the other Amazons who were working the stall nodded. “Something they heard, or something like that. Something.. I don’t know. Something about them wanting to take over it.”
“Oh.” Gabrielle made a face. “Give me a break.” She exhaled in some exasperation. “It’s just a damn backwoods shrine. Why would anyone care?” She asked, in a plaintive tone. “Does everything we do have to involve the rest of the freaking known world?”
Most of the surrounding Amazons chuckled, some wryly. “Word sure spread fast.” Solari said. “Those guys in Therma probably said oh crap, not those people again! Last time they were here they wrecked the place.”
Gabrielle’s lips twitched a little in acknowledgment.
“Those Ithacans brought a chest of gold and stuff to offer to Ares though.” Paladia spoke up unexpectedly. “They ended up bleeding all over the altar instead, but they were loaded. Wonder what they did with it?”
Everyone now turned and looked at Paladia, making the tall woman hunch in reflex action. “What?” She barked gruffly. “I heard em talking.”
“Wait a minute. What was that?” Gabrielle asked. “They were going to offer him gold?” Her pale eyebrows hunched together. “Really?”
Gabrielle took a sip of tea. “Why that, I wonder?”
“Why not?” Renas asked. “I been in one of the bigger temples, it was gold leaf everywhere.” She said. “I mean, they’re the gods, right? For sure they want the best. I put a pair of my best bracelets up there, didn’t I?”
The market around them was now settling into a more normal pattern, and as Gabrielle slowly let her eyes scan around again, she noted the Ithacans were back, and two of the oracle’s retinue were with them, standing next to their encampment at the north end of the square.
They looked smug. That made her arm hair prickle. “Yeah, but is that for the gods, or for the ones who claim to speak for them?” She commented, in a thoughtful tone. “All my experience with them, they wanted attention more than coin.”
Her companions absorbed this in silence.
“But then again, we had no coin to offer them before really so maybe it’s just my perception.” Gabrielle continued mildly. She stood up. “I think we have town court in a candlemark. Anyone want to speak up for the tribe?”
Nala and Solari lifted a hand, and Cait joined them, and the group dispersed, some going back into the stall, some following Gabrielle as she led the way out of the market and back up towards the town.
Xena paused on her way from the inn, finding a fence rail to sit on and stopping to just think for a few minutes. Below her she could see the market filling, and her eyes found the Amazon stall almost automatically where she could just see Gabrielle’s familiar form near one side.
To the right she could see the barracks, very active now with some of the metalsmiths forging arrow heads and a dozen militia sparring in the yard just within her vision.
The twin sounds of hammered metal and swords clashing were familiar to her ears, but as she sat there she thought about the oracle, and his death and she felt there was something off. Something she could just detect at the edges of her perceptions and outside her control and she didn’t like it.
Something was wrong. And once she said that in her head to herself she felt a sense of relief relaxing tension across her shoulders as she accepted the idea and knew at some point she would have to find and fix the wrongness that was permeating her world like a bad spice ruining a meal.
A door closed nearby and she looked up to find Toris and Lila emerging from the barn, laughing together as they came over to her side. “Hey sis.” Toris greeted her. “What’s up?”
“Hey.” Xena waved a little.
Lila perched on the rail next to her. “Where’s the girls? They’re missed in the fort.” She indicated the barn over her shoulder with a thumb.
All so normal. Xena regarded them. Or wasn’t it so abnormal for her? “They’re up near our place.” She said. “Playing with Jess’s kids.”
“Hey, they were talking in the inn about some trouble down in the market.” Lila said. “I was going to go down there to pick up some spices… any problems?”
“We were going to head down to the races.” Toris said. “Not much going on there that the Amazons and Xe’s army can’t handle. People are idiots to start trouble here.” He said. “Seriously.”
Xena clasped her hands between her knees. “That damn oracle got himself strangled in my wardroom.” She admitted. “That’s the trouble.”
Toris blinked. “Holy crap.”
Lila also blinked. “Are you kidding? I heard he got hurt, but I thought it was just a fall.”
“Doesn’t make much sense.” Xena said, in a mournful tone. “He was a fifty fifty chance to live anyway. Had a cracked skull.”
“Who did it?” Toris asked. “He piss off one of the healers?”
“His friends seem to think I did.” Xena said.
“You?” Lila’s voice lifted. “Why?”
“Oh I bet I know.” Toris said. “You were his competition.”
“Competition for what?” Both Xena and Lila spoke up at the same time, in the same vocal reflection.
Cast in the unusual role of provider of knowledge, Toris straightened up a little, spreading out his hands to either side. “Voice of Ares, of course.”
Both women stared at him.
“Sis, you told this guy you talk to Ares. That was his big gig. He was the mouthpiece.” Toris explained as though it should have been obvious to both of them. “It’s the big gig for all those oracles, you know? That’s why they’re oracles? They interpret the gods for the rest of us dumb mortals?”
Xena slapped her forehead with one hand. “I am not a damned interpreter.”
“Well, I know that, like everyone else around here.” Toris regarded her with some amusement. “But see it from his side, you know? This is his claim to fame, and he shows up here, and you’re like big deal buddy we all talk to his ass.”
Lila looked at Xena. “You do? You talk to Ares? Really?”
“She does. She talks to all of them.” Toris informed his sister in law. “They show up here, y’know. It’s why when they said they wanted to build shrines I was like why bother? Just set up a table in mom’s kitchen.” He glanced across the hillside. “Here, ask your sister. I think she gives advice to Aphrodite when she isn’t busy hitting people with that stick.”
“This is wild.” Lila said.
“Yeah, those paintings above the altars? They posed for them so Cait’s partner could paint em.” Toris went on, obviously enjoying his sisters facial expressions. “So I get why those guys were flipped out. If Xe talks to them they aren’t special in any way.”
“So much for their gig.” Lila said, as Gabrielle arrived with a cadre of leather covered Amazons with her. “Hey sis.”
Gabrielle regarded all of them, then focused on Xena. “You ready for dipshits adjudication?”
Xena hopped off the fence and ran her fingers through her dark, disheveled hair. “Lets go.” She put a hand on Gabrielle’s shoulder to steer her down the lane to the town’s gathering hall. “Before you have to adjudicate me as a dipshit.”
“Tell ya later.”