A Change of Seasons
The council hall was set in the back lane of the town, behind the inn, and the small cabins behind it, and it’s barn, past where the common joint gardens were now being tended by some of the older children who were planting fresh seed in them.
It had been burned down in the last set of troubles and now was rebuilt, with sturdy river stone walls and wide wood shuttered windows that were now thrown open to the spring breeze and when not being used for meetings and council business was a favorite place for the women of the town to meet and work on their various tasks and projects.
Gabrielle was aware, as she always was, of the briefest of sideways glances for these women seated near the small fire as she and Xena and the other Amazons entered.
She knew these relatively traditional people, though friendly to them and long accustomed to their presence drew a line between them and regarded them as..
Odd? Weird? Hard to really say because at first, no question it had been about her and Xena, and when she’d first come to live even part time in the town there had been a time when the women had tried to gather her into their circle because in truth, coming from Potadeia, she had seemed more like them than not.
They had tried, for a bit, to fit her and Xena and their relationship into the mold they knew and understood and she remembered, with a faint smile as she returned the cordial waves the uncomfortable revelation they had come to when they’d realized how unlike they actually were.
Three of the council were already up near the table and they joined them, Johan reaching over to give her a pat on the arm as they arrived. “Morning.” He said. “You kids had a busy morning, eh?”
Only Johan, who was married to Cyrene could get away with that. Xena gave him a darkly wry look, lifting her hands in a motion of acknowledgement as he chuckled.
“Morning everyone.” Gabrielle responded. “Starting off to be a crazy day huh?” She regarded the group, seeing the swiftly hidden expressions of doubt and uncertainty.
“Aye.” Johan agreed. “Heard a lot of chatter.” He responded straightforwardly. “Some of them making a ruckus down in the market early.”
The council focused on her. “Saw you sorted them all out, Gabrielle.” Stanis, the town bootmaker said. “Thanks to you for that, but we hear they sent for reinforcements?” He asked. “One of them was talking about bringing the gods down on our heads.”
Xena rolled her eyes.
“Now, Xena.” Stanis saw, and protested. “We only just started to get on, after the awful winter and the last time here, once we went back to the old ways.”
The other council members nodded in agreement, except for Johan who was watching his step daughter’s face. “Been talking to those men from Ithaca.” He said. “This cult, Ares cult, got a powerful force other places.” His gray brows contracted. “Kinda odd how far word spread, eh?”
Xena folded her arms, and exhaled. “Lot of odd things.” She admitted. ‘But that’s not why we’re here, and we’ve got things to do so can we get on with this?” She stared at them until the rest of the council started to stir and mutter, unable to meet her sharp gaze.
“Right.” Gabrielle cleared her throat. “So let’s talk about Corman.” She said, removing a set of rolled scrolls from her carry bag and sorting them. “I spoke to him to make sure he understands the laws he broke here.”
The council hesitated, then they looked at Johan in entreaty, and both Xena and Gabrielle got the unspoken message that conversation had been had before their arrival.
Johan came over and stood next to Gabrielle, folding his hands together and drawing breath. “Aye, about this lad now.” He began. “We were thinking about him with everything else what’s going on.”
“Uh oh.” Cait whispered to Solari.
“Gabrielle’s got it.” Solari whispered back, seeing her queen’s body posture change as she listened.
“So we were thinking, would it be good to just move this troublemaker on out of here?” Johan asked. “Seems like we’ve got enough things to sort without dealing with this outlander kid.” He glanced around at the group as most of them murmured in agreement. “He came with that merchant train, and they were talking bad, yeah? Said he was a harmless lad.”
“Harmless?” Gabrielle’s voice sharpened, and everyone heard it, flinching a little. “Only because I stopped him.”
“Okay. Let’s siddown.” Xena went over to the big, round council table and sat down and the rest came over to join her, taking seats as two more of the town council entered and approached in a hurry, sitting down at the far end and bending their heads to their neighbors to get caught up.
Nala, Solari and Cait took a seat at one of the nearby craft tables to watch and wait, Nala detouring briefly to the hearth to pick up three cups and a pitcher.
“I mean.” Johan continued. “What are we going to do w’him? We sentence him to labor he’ll just be more of a trial to us than help.” He said. “He’s not from here, y’see? I’d be afraid to let him loose in the town.”
“Xena.” Stanis said, in a more serious tone. “Johan’s got a point yeah? The merchants were talking, saying seemed like we were taking advantage of them.”
Xena regarded the table with a dour expression.
Gabrielle leaned forward, her elbows on the table and her hands clasped. “That man not only harassed women here from the town, but also from the Amazons, and he drew steel on my daughter.” She stated flatly. “He shouldn’t have consequences for that?”
A chorus of voices rose in instant denial. “Lass, we’re not saying that.” Johan said, hastily. “Just being practical. What will we do? Not saying he doesn’t deserve to be punished but we have bigger fish here, don’t we?”
Gabrielle felt her temper prickle, and next to her, Xena leaned back in her seat and they bumped knees under the table. She looked over to see her partner watching her, one finely drawn eyebrow quirked.
She could read the expression without any effort, and she could feel the muscles in Xena’s thigh jumping as tension came into her tall frame.
“They’re getting pissed off.” Solari whispered to Cait, who nodded.
One of the council brought a pitcher over and a platter with mugs. “No one’s saying he doesn’t deserve a sentence, Gabrielle.” The man said. “We mostly all saw it. Saw him go for the kids, and I’ve heard from my wife the man’s a pig.” He poured her a mug and slid it over. “But what? For what he said to the lasses I’d give him a pounding but you already done that.”
“Been talking to him.” Johan said. “Says he feared for those horses, didn’t understand what those kids were.”
“Jessan’s kids.” Gabrielle said.
“Aye.” Johan regarded her mildly. “We’re used to them, yeah?” He said. “Them merchants don’t know what they are. Scary, to them, they are, and that lad’s from further than most to here him talk. All he got was them horses.”
“Those aren’t his horses.” Xena spoke up. “Found someone who knows the guy whose horses they are, back towards Therma.”
All the town councilmembers focused on her at once. “Oh, so a thief as well?” Stanis said. “Way he was going on thought he birthed and carried those animals.” He said, looking at Xena. “Different, that.”
“So.” Gabrielle said, in a deceptively mild tone. “It’s okay for him to harass my Amazons and our fellow townspeople, and go after children. But not steal horses?”
“You can almost see the hairs on her neck going up.” Nala whispered to Solari. “Not sure which one of them is going to take a whack first.”
“Bets on her Maj.” Solari responded, knowingly. “Her temper’s worse.”
“Idiots.” Cait muttered.
“Man stole another man’s property, it’s a hanging.” Stanis said, reasonably. “Merchants’ll understand that, Gabrielle. Touches them as well, and we could make a point they brought a thief with them.”
“Aye.” One of the others nodded. “Better for us.”
Gabrielle rolled her head to one side and looked directly at Xena, who had propped her elbow on the chair arm and was resting her head on her fist. “How do you feel about that, hon?” She asked. “I know you love horses, but more than your kid?”
Xena’s nostrils flared visibly, and her lips parted, emitting the tip of her tongue briefly before she turned her head and regarded the rest of the table with a dark, enigmatic look and faced with that the council drew back in their seats.
“That’s not what we meant.” Johan spoke up. “It’s just a.. “ He paused, as Xena stood up, towering over the rest of the table and suddenly a dark, cold force in the room that hadn’t been there moments before as she focused her gaze on each one of them. “Xena.” Johan said. “If he hangs regardless, what’s the harm in it?”
“Hm, maybe not.” Nala whispered. “Why waste energy hitting people when Big X can do it just with a stare?”
“Pooh.” Cait unfolded her arms, watching Xena’s hands, her right thumb tensing and moving as her hand twisted, on the verge of going for her sword, the muscle on the back of her arm becoming visible under the light fabric of her shirt sleeve as the perceptible energy in the room changed.
The amazons all gathered themselves, and Cait stood, her chair scraping back as she let her hand rest on her belt dagger, adding her unsmiling stare at the townsfolk.
“What’s the harm in it?” Xena repeated softly. “Valuing reputation over those women and my family breaks my law. That’s the harm.” Her voice had dropped to an almost rasp. “I don’t give a rats ass what those merchants think. They’re here to sell to us.”
“But..” Stanis looked over at Johan, who had reached and taken a hard hold on his wrist. He fell silent.
“This conversation is over.” Xena said. “I’ll take care of this kid.” She slowly looked from face to face, only Johan meeting her eyes. “And I’ll make sure those merchants know whose hands his blood’s on. “
Gabrielle folded her hands on the table, but remained silent, as the rest finally, uneasily nodded, turning to look as Cait left her place and walked over to Xena’s other side, pausing to look up at her mentor.
Xena’s brow twitched.
“May I execute him for you, Xena?” Cait asked, in her quiet, even voice. “I’d be quite pleased to.”
Gabrielle drew in a breath, then just released it, as her eyes met Xena’s and held there in silent communication for a moment, before her head tilted just slightly in deference to her partner.
Xena smiled briefly and nodded, and Cait withdrew to stand behind Gabrielle’s shoulder, a pleased expression on her face, as the council shifted uneasily but seemed to relax a little as Xena sat back down with a thump. “Next subject.”
Johan cleared his throat. “The oracle then, I suppose.” He said, reluctantly. “Was killed they say.”
“He was strangled in the healer’s room.” Gabrielle said. “Sometime between last night and this morning.. Xena thinks closer to dawn.” She glanced at her partner. “His gang wouldn’t let the healers near him, so it’s hard to say exactly.”
The council remained quiet, absorbing the news.
“By the way.” Xena added, after the silence had started to become uncomfortable. “I didn’t kill him.” She let her hands rest on the table. “I don’t know why someone did. Yet.”
Stanis glanced around. “You think the gods will be against us for it, Xena?” He asked, in a worried tone. “Its been such a good spring so far. You know?”
“I know.” Xena responded.
“But we don’t know if that really has something to do with the gods, or if it’s just the cycle of luck.” Gabrielle said. “As in, we were due for some good stuff. We don’t know.” She repeated. “The gods have been known to be capricious in the past, at least, in my life anyway.”
“Awful coincidence.” Rogan said.
“True.” Xena said. “But the marks on that guy’s neck were made by a man, not a god.” She stood up. “Let me go deal with this kid.” She said. “Get one thing out of the way. C’mon Cait.”
“Gladly.” Cait came to heel and followed Xena across the room and out the door.
The council looked a bit uncomfortable. “We didn’t mean to slight you, Gabrielle, in what that kid did.” Stanis said.
“You did mean to.” Gabrielle disagreed but in a mild tone. “You’d think, living here, you’d get that women are as valuable as men, certainly to Xena and myself.”
“Has nothing to with that lass.” Johan spoke up. “It’s not us. It’s these people from the outside. They don’t have the same views as we do.”
“Don’t they?” Gabrielle stood up. “Let me give you a bit of advice.” She leaned forward, resting her weight on her fingertips splayed across the wooden surface. “By all means worship the gods. Just don’t put all your eggs in their basket. You never know what’s behind what’s going on.”
She picked up her staff and put her scrolls back in her bag, motioning to Solari and Nala. “C’mon, people. Lets go.” She led the way out of the hall, shaking her head.
Dori led the way through the spring growth, as the sun came through the branches to warm them. “We can go find fishes.” She predicted confidently. “Boo said she saw some here.”
“Lets go down to the rock place.” Warrin suggested. “Maybe you find more cookies there.”
“Mama said no.” Dori said. “Not to climb the ropes again.”
“Mama was mad.” Cari said. “Said we could get owie doing that.” She had picked a pretty little purple flower, and she was carrying it with her, sniffing it in idle happiness.
“It was fun.” Warrin objected.
“It was.” Butterbean agreed. “Goat was yums too.”
“Mama said we shouldn’t have done that.” Dori spotted a pretty rock, and picked it up to examine it more closely. “Said it belonged to them other people.” She put the rock in her pouch and pushed her way through a patch of mountain grass, grunting in approval. “Dere we go.”
Ahead of them was a creek, burbling noisily, the blue grey water reflecting sunbeams as it splashed over it’s granite footing, the edge of the water spilling over onto the earth. It smelled of minerals and the damp pungency of moss.
“The goats was someone’s?” Warrin asked. “No one said that.”
“We didn’t know.” Cari climbed up onto one of the creek side rocks, sticking her hand down to feel the water. “Mama said it was, and the cookies too.” She cupped her hand and drew up a bit of water, sipping it. “She said we should go get cookies from gramma next time.”
“Long walk.” Butterbean said. “But daddy gave us this today so maybe he knew?” She opened her little over the chest bag and displayed a handful of dried venison. “He said we should be good.”
“We have some stuff in our house.” Dori waded up into the creek, peering down into the ruffled surface. “We can go there later.”
“We should go see the horsies too.” Little Gabrielle said, coming over with a handful of colored stones. “Look!”
Dori spotted something in the water, and she moved over, digging in the bed to find her footing before she could reach down and plunge her hand into the water up to her shoulder. She felt something in her fingers and stood up again, looking at what she held in her hand.
“What you got?” Cari asked, watching her.
“Sharp thing.” Dori held it up, the light winking off it. She waded back to the side of the creek and showed her friends. “Knife like Boo’s.”
“Pretty.” Butterbean declared.
“That’s like what she made for Lolo and Ly.” Cari said. “She make this?”
Dori sat down on the rock at the creeks edge, being washed over by the force of the water over her thighs. She studied the knife as the sun warmed her back. “Don’t think so.” She said. “Different.”
“Sharp.” Warrin touched the blade with his finger.
“What’s it in the creek for?” Butterbean asked.
“Dunno.” Dori handed over the knife. “Hold this.” She went back in the water. “Lesse if there’s more stuff.”
“Treasure.” Warrin grinned. “Lemme help.” He followed Dori into the creek. “Find something pretty to take back to our mama.”
“Ho ho ho.”
“We thought you were going to bap them one.” Solari said, as they walked from the hall and down the center lane of the town, emerging from the shadow of the trees to the warm sunlight. “I mean yes I get what Johan was saying, y’know?”
“Totally get it.” Gabrielle paused as they reached the crossroads, deciding which way to go. “In fact, I actually agree with him except that I can’t agree with him. You know?”
“We know.” Nala said. “Sucks.”
“Sucks.” Gabrielle agreed mournfully. “We should be able to make an example of this nitwit and now we can’t, because the example we’ll be making is that we do things differently here and that’s not a great thing to do right this minute.”
“Yeah.” Solari said. “Pissed off Big X.”
“Yeah.” Nala nodded.
“For sure it did. She was getting that look.” Gabrielle started off back down towards the river, internally sorting out how she was going to tell Corman’s tale so it spread.
“The one where she squints?”
“Yeah, I could see her fingers twitching.” Nala smiled. “And those guys were clueless. You know?”
“Well.” Gabrielle suppressed a grim smile. “We’ve lived here a while, and Jo’s married to Xe’s mom so I think they think nothing would happen to them.”
There was a small silence between them. “But she’s still Xena.” Solari said, finally. “Like no matter what else.”
“She’s still Xena.” Gabrielle confirmed. “But honestly, I have a worse temper than she does when it comes right down to it.” She admitted, with a smile. “Xe can get mad, and she has and I’ve seen it, but usually when something has to be done she just does it kind of .. “She shrugged a little.
“Just to get it over with.” Nala said. “No baggage.”
“No baggage.” Gabrielle walked onto the bridge, the wood planks flexing a little bit under her weight. “It’s not the doesn’t care about what happens.. I remember when I first started telling stories about her, she’d come to me after I was finished and say.. ‘I’d never do that.”
“And I would tell her.. ‘But Xena, you did it.” Gabrielle chuckled also. “And she would get this look on her face – kind of appalled sorta – and I did end up wondering if she did the things I made stories about because she wanted to or because she wanted me to make stories about these amazing things and she was the only one I had around to do them for me.”
“She came from such a strange place.” Nala said, diplomatically.
“She did.” Gabrielle glanced over the edge of the bridge at the river. “Finally rising.” She commented. “I think they built this one better than the last one though.” She knocked her staff against the wood. “Anyway, what was I saying.. oh yeah, Xena.” She paused, leaning against the rail and the two women came to lean next to her.
“Someone said.” Solari eyed her sideways. “That you were the first person who um…”
“Who loved her unconditionally.” Gabrielle nodded slightly. “Like a dog.” She returned Solari’s look with a brief, mischievous grin. “It’s true. But I was only the first person, and it was because I saw how she treated Argo.”
“Ah.” Nala nodded. “Now that’s true, Gabrielle. You can always tell the truth of a person by how they treat beasts.” She regarded the river. “Even with kids you can tell, you know? Like your Dori, always saving little creatures and how she loves her pony, and her puppy and..”
“And even lizards and bugs.” Dori’s mother agreed, as she turned from the river and they continued on. “So anyway, what’s going on down there today… those more races?” She shaded her eyes and looked down at the paddocks, which were thick with animals.
“Got a lot of them interested.” Nala went with the subject change amiably. “Merchants, I mean. Heard them talking the other day about bartering for some of the stock from here.”
They reached the end of the bridge and there were people milling around, noting the three women and pausing to watch them as they threaded their way through the crowd.
The mood seemed lighter, but as they cleared the lower meadow and came to the edge of the market, Gabrielle saw that the Ithacans and the rest of the oracles entourage standing near the exit to the road, arguing with a half dozen militia.
“Ah crap. Now what?” Nala conveniently spoke exactly what Gabrielle was thinking.
Gabrielle sighed, as they came even with the Amazon’s stall again, and several of them came out to join her. “Good morning again.”
Paladia came over, her hands stained with color from the picture she’d been working on in the corner. “Where’s the nutcase?” She had a quill stuck behind her ear, and a dusting of blue stained the pale blond hair just over it.
“With Xena.” Solari said. “I think they’re killing that moron in the jail.”
“That’ll put her in a good mood.” Paladia said. “She’s wanted to do that for days.” She glanced over at the men near the tree. “They’re all pissed off cause Benny and the boys are going to toast their poobah.” She pointed at them. “Morons.”
Gabrielle winked at Paladia. “Thanks for not making me go over there to find out.” She motioned the rest of them back into the stall. “What do they want?”
“To keep him for whoever they sent those guys for.” Renas offered her an oatcake. “Morons, like she said. “Or people who ain’t never been around dead bodies I guess.”
Gabrielle stared at her, then looked past them as she watched the militia stolidly shoving the men aside as they built a pyre. “What??”
“Morons.” Paladia went back to her picture, shaking her head. She settled onto a worn square built stool and turned the stretched hide she was painting a bit more into the sunlight. “Like some dude is gonna show up and he’s going to pop back to life.”
There was a brief silence, and sensing it, Paladia turned around to see the Amazons looking at Gabrielle, who was thoughtfully scratching her nose. “Oh crap.” The tall ex renegade exhaled and rolled her eyes. “Yeah I forgot that does happen around you people sometimes.” She turned back around. “Never mind that aint happening with him.”
Gabrielle smiled briefly. “No.” She said. “He’s not Xena.” She folded both hands around her staff and leaned on it, a little. “And you know, if he was all that important, Ares could have shown up and protected him.” She regarded the men with a pragmatic expression.
“Should we tell them that?” Nala said.
“Like they’re not pissed enough?” Paladia sighed.
Gabrielle squared her shoulders and shifted her grip to one hand on her staff. “No, I doubt that’d be helpful. Let’s just let the militia handle it for now.”
She considered, and then she went through the side entrance to their little area and approached the empty stage, casually going over and taking a seat on the edge of it, putting her staff down on the surface and resting her hands on her knees, just keeping her eye on the pyre building.
Across the market, coming from the direction of the river road she saw a man approaching, in rough clad linen and a patched cloak. He had grizzled gray hair and a full beard and was carrying a staff not too different from hers. She watched him enter the market and slow, casually walking along and looking at the contents of the stalls.
He was limping, a little. He had a lot of road dust on him, a set of rolled packs on his back and a hood on his cloak that he now had pushed back to hang down and most of the merchants paid him scant notice.
There was something about him though, that made Gabrielle keep watching and when he paused near the baker’s stand and engaged one of the town marshalls she wasn’t entirely surprised when the marshall listened, and then turned and pointed right at her.
“Yeah.” She exhaled a little, swinging her legs. “Weird guy shows up in town, send them straight to me. That’s about how it usually goes. Why can’t weird guy want to talk to Cyrene? Why not the blacksmith? Why does it always have to be me?”
The man nodded a thanks and changed his course, heading towards her and she crossed her boots at the ankle and leaned back with her hands propped behind her, aware of the attention of the Amazons not far away.
The man reached her, and paused, leaning on his staff. “Greetings.”
“Hi.” Gabrielle responded amiably.
“My name is Simon.” The man said, his words holding an unfamiliar cant to her ears. “I’m a storyteller.”
Gabrielle patted the stage next to her, pleasantly surprised. “Sit down, Simon.” She invited him. “My name’s Gabrielle.” She said. “Welcome to Amphipolis.”
Close up, his face was lined with experience and weathered, a scattering of scars across one cheek giving him a rakish appearance and as he took her up on her offer and settled down next to her, it was with a sense that he’d traveled along time, and was glad to be sitting down.
“Thank you.” He said. “I have been traveling a long way and welcome a chance to sit down and perhaps get permission from you to spend a day here, telling my stories in hopes of a coin or two.” He glanced back the way he’d come. “The good townsman there said you would be the one to ask.”
There was no hint at all of skepticism in his tone. “Sure.” Gabrielle said. “We love to hear new stories. Where are you from?”
“Small town just outside Heraklion, on Crete.” He answered. “But it’s been a very long time since I’ve been home. I’ve lately been in northern parts, in the mountains of Macedonia.”
“That is a long way.” Gabrielle agreed. “I’ve been up in those mountains.” She added. “But you’re welcome to stay and tell us your tales – if you’re not from around here even more welcome as you probably have new ones for us.”
Simon smiled easily. “Speaks another storyteller, methinks. I can tell from the cadence of your voice.” He relaxed a little as he saw the responding smile. “We are few and far between in these parts.”
“We are.” Gabrielle said, counting herself charmed by both the recognition and the calm courtesy of the man. “Interested in bowl of something? I have some friends over there at the food stall.”
He chuckled and waggled his bushy gray eyebrows. “The days definitely looking up. Lead on, Gabrielle.” He stood up and joined her, as more militia came past them, carrying cord wood. “What’s the story there?”
“Lets wait to get a mug of ale.”
Xena had all the length of the path that led from the council hall to the jail to decide what to do with the little punk inside it. Her nod to Cait notwithstanding, she knew she had a few options, and she was sorting through them as they walked side by side down the slope.
“Those men are stupid.” Cait stated, after a few minutes of silence. “Really, Xena.”
“They’re not that stupid.” Her companion disagreed. “They’re just practical.” She sniffed reflectively. “I can see their point, Cait.”
Cait made a faint, disgusted noise.
Xena smiled wryly. “Didn’t mean I didn’t want to slug them.” She conceded. “Yeah, they irritated me, too.”
“I simply can’t see why you didn’t.” Cait sighed. “Why must one always be so polite with these townspeople?”
“Because we live here.”
“We don’t, actually.”
“Because my mother lives here.”
“Hm.” Cait made a small face. “That is true.”
The guards outside the jail straightened as she approached, and one of them opened the door and stood aside to let her enter. Once inside she went to the cell Corman was in and put her hands on the bars, looking in at him.
He glowered back. “Come to take me to that fancy court?” He said. “They said it was today.”
Xena studied him. “No.”
He stood up and came over to the door. Aside from his bruises, and a tear in his shirt he wasn’t that much worse for wear and he came at the bars fast, as though expecting Xena to jump back. “Come to your senses then? Going to let me out of here? Apologize maybe?”
The guard chuckled, and shook his head.
“By the gods, you’re an absolute idiot.” Cait said. “Xena, can I get on with it? I promised Pally I’d have a bit of lunch with her.” She drew her dagger and tested the point of it, her head cocked towards Xena in question.
“Shut up you little git.” Corman shook the bars.
“Yeah. Lets get this done and over with.” Xena abruptly made her decision and lifted one hand towards the guard. “Toss me the keys.” She took a step back as the man tossed her the ring of them, sorting through them and matching the number incised into the top of one with the cell number, inserting it into the lock and turning it.
Uncertainly, he stepped back. “What’s the story here?” He watched the door open. “What are you going to do?”
“She’s not going to do anything.” Cait slipped into the cell and faced him. “However, I’m going to kill you.” She told him, in a placid tone. “Don’t scream, all right? You’ll bother the goats outside in the pasture.” She wiped the blade of her long dagger on the edge of her leathers. “I’ll try not to make too much of a mess.”
He scuttled away from her and went to the back of the cell. “What are you, mad?”
“Not at all.” Cait stalked towards him in a fluid motion. “Knowing you won’t be about to bother my friends anymore actually makes me feel quite happy in fact.” She flipped the dagger in her hand and closed in on him, a smile appearing on her face.
“Hey!” He yelped, looking past at Xena. “You can’t do that! What about all your laws?”
“They found the guy who owns those horses.” Xena remarked, her body filling the gap in the door in case he got the idea to try and run from Cait which she figured he well might. “I sent a patrol to go get him. I’ll make my bargain with him when he gets here.”
Corman pressed back against the wall, his eyes now widening in belatedly realized fear. “You can’t be killing me – I didn’t do anything!” His voice rose in panic. “I just messed about with some wenches!” His face went pale and the bruises on his neck from Gabrielle’s staff stood out suddenly. “I swear those horses were just there for the taking!”
“Excuse me.” Cait boxed him into a corner, spreading one arm out to block him from going around her while she lowered the hand she had the dagger in. “We don’t like being called wenches.” She grabbed the hand he shot at her in her free hand and held it still.
“You’re lying.” Xena said. “The horses were staked out. You didn’t look for their owner.”
“I did!” He tried to pull his hand free, to pull Cait off balance, but his back was to the wall and he found he couldn’t budge her, even though she was much smaller than he was. “I looked around… hey!”
Cait’s expression changed and became cold, as she shoved his arm up and pinned his throat in place, then came in close and shoved him hard against the wall, drawing her dagger back.
He realized at that moment he was going to die and his breath caught in his throat as he tried to grab at Cait’s knife hand, and his eyes went past her to find Xena’s blue ones, like winter ice watching, her arms folded in silent judgement.
He heard in his mind Gabrielle’s voice and suddenly it all came very clear to him. “All right! All right yes I did!” He squealed loud as he could. “I stole the damn things I did!” He panted and closed his eyes as he felt Cait move. “Just to get here!”
The motion stopped, and Cait turned her head and looked at Xena. “Xena.” She sighed. “Really?”
Xena moved into the cell and reached over Cait’s shoulder to grab Corman’s hair and yank his head up. “Why?”
He squinted open one eye. “What?”
“Why did you want to come here?” Xena pronounced the words explicitly. “This is the backwater end of the region. What are you doing here?”
“Out of chances.” Xena rasped at him, in almost a whisper.
“Hmph.” Cait snorted.
“I was looking for someone.” Corman said, hastily. “That’s it. Someone I knew once.” He added. “That’s it.. that’s it… if I’d have known you were demons I’d have forgotten and stayed far off!”
Xena studied his face intently, and he tried to look anywhere but at her. “Why here?”
“Someone said.. “ He paused. “They’d moved to these parts.”
Ah. “An Amazon?”
He looked furtively at her. “Didn’t know that’s what they were.” He muttered. “Didn’t know nothing about em.”
Xena shifted her grip to his jaw and forced him to look right at her for a very long moment. Then she released him and stepped back and touched Cait on the head as she cleared out of the way.
With no hesitation, Cait drove her dagger into his heart, the blade scraping audibly through his ribs and cutting through his lungs on the way to deliver the accurate and deadly blow.
His eyes popped, and he jerked twice, his body vibrating as he slipped into darkness, his body sliding down the back wall of the jail as Cait stood to let it, letting the weight of it remove the flesh from her blade and then wiping it’s surface clean on the shoulder of his tunic.
His body vibrated a moment more then was still as his heart stopped, mortally split in two.
“That’s a job done.” Cait commented.
“Yep.” Xena turned and motioned to the guard, who’d been joined by two more in watching the execution. “Throw him on that pyre outside.”
“Aye, genr’l.” One of the guards nodded. “Clean work, Cait.”
Cait smiled at the compliment.
Xena clapped her on the back. “Let’s go find that lunch. “
Dori sloshed out of the creek, finally, grunting with satisfaction as she emptied her hands on the bank, adding what she’d found to the pile the others were already sorting through. She had creek mud soaking her leggings and smeared up both arms, and her dark hair was wet and slicked back. “Good.”
“Good” Butterbean repeated, as she scrambled out after her, carry pouch full.
“Pretty.” Cari held up a half translucent piece of rock to her, turning it in the sun’s rays. “Look, Dor.”
“Nice.” Butterbean nodded. “And this too!” She held up a piece of silver, shaped into an arrowhead and decorated with tiny colored stones.
“We can take that to mama.” Warin said. “She’s gonna like it.”
All five children were wet, and they squirmed into the sunlight for warmth as they examined their loot. “Lotta stuff.” Little Gabrielle opined. “How’d this get there?” She asked Dori. “People threw it away?”
“Dunno.” Dori pulled her legs up crossed under her. “Got this box.” She settled a hammered bronze square in front of her. It was a little bent and discolored, but the top opened on it’s empty interior. “Like that.”
“Good to put stuff.” Warin agreed.
Cari had some metal rings all looped together, a piece as large at her hand and she had it spread out in front of her, with a nice selection of river stones on top of it and she was regarding them with some delight. “Coool.”
A faint sound of water splashing made them all look up, turning to look back up the creek now speckled with sunlight. A small craft was approaching and Dori got up to go stand by the edge of the water as the boat approached.
Two young Amazons were inside it and they paddled to stay in place as they came even with them. Dina and Sali, newly minted juniors. “What are you kids doing here?” Dina demanded. ‘Dori, you’re not supposed to be away from the village.”
“Pfft.” Dori responded. “Mama said.” She pronounced. “What you do here?”
The two Amazons exchanged glances. “We’re patrolling.” Dina said. “We’re looking for a cave. Have you seen one?” Sali asked. “Around here, off the creek?”
“Shh.” Dina hissed at her. “They’re just kids. They don’t know anything.”
Dori regarded them, one of her dark eyebrows hiking up a little. “Nope.” She said. “No caves.”
“You kids should go back to the village.” Dina said. “I heard there was some dangerous animal around here. You don’t want to get hurt.”
Warin came over to stand next to her, his silver tinged fur dappled gray with creek water. He was about the same height as Dori was and he flexed his hands a little, his claws clicking together a bit. “Dere’s no animals.” He said, with quiet confidence. “We know.”
“We know.” Butterbean chimed in. “We heard dem.” She touched one of her tufted, fur covered ears. “A squirrel, dere.” She pointed at a tree across the water at a tree growing out of the steep rock wall. “No big ones.”
“Okay, don’t say we didn’t warn you.” The young Amazons paddled past. ‘If something happens it’s not our fault!”
Dori put her hands on her hips. “Choo!” She jerked her chin up at them. “Don’t need your yak yak.”
“Dumb.” Cari said. “Them and the other ones who got up.” She moved her rocks into a pattern in the sunlight. “Like to tell the peoples what to do.”
“Only mama says.” Dori said. “And Boo.” She added. “Not these dumb dumbs.”
“What’s the thing with the cave? Can we find it?” Butterbean drummed her heels on the ground. “Maybe there’s more stuff?”
Dori cocked her head to one side. “I think Boo found that cave.” She said, in a thoughtful tone. “Was saying with mama in our place. She found it with Cat.”
“Around here?” Little Gabrielle asked. “In this water place?”
Dori thought about that for a minute in silence. “Boo went to fishes.” She said. “Mama was saying about her being in the water.” She turned and regarded the creek. “Maybe down from here? Lets put the stuff away and go find it.”
“Cool.” Warin agreed. “That’s fun.”
“That’s fun.” Butterbean said. “We can put our stuff in the bag, and put it up in the tree.” She pointed at the branches overhead. “No one’ll find it.” She turned as a patter of dog paws were heard and watched, as Teo and Buppit arrived, licking their lips. “Doggos!”
Cari threw her arms around Teo’s neck and kissed him. “My doggo!” She greeted him, watching his tail wiggle.
Buppit went over to Dori and licked her hand, and she unceremoniously opened his jaws and looked inside his mouth. “Buuuupppit.. what you eating?”
Buppit licked his lips, with a slightly roguish gleam in his eye.
“Smells like cookies.” Cari said. “Maybe they found some.”
“Maybe in that place, like there was the last time.” Warin said. “You sure we can’t go there?”
“Mama said no.” Dori stated firmly. “C’mon, lets find the cave.” She helped put all the findings in Butterbean’s bag, and then watched as the forest dweller went to the nearest tree and leaped up, digging her claws into the bark and swarming upward. “We can go to gramma after and get cookies.”
Cari came over to stand by her, smelling of the dirt, and the grass, and the water from the creek. “Maybe dere’s treasure in da cave.” She said. “So they’r looking for it.”
“Maybe.” Dori waited as Butterbean climbed back down, and then she lead the way to the creek edge and plunged back into it. “Bet we find it first.” She predicted. “Them two are dumb.”
“Dumb, dumb dumb.” Cari followed her without hesitation. “We’re gonna find it.”
“Ho ho ho. Bet we do.” Warrin stroked easily through the flow of the creek, which was noticeably increasing. “Wooo… gonna be fun!”
Gabrielle settled back in one of the wooden chairs under the tree, a crowd slowly gathering there from around the market. They had a good view from the river to the road, and a platter and jug in front of them. “Sounds like it was quiet in the north over the winter.”
“It was.” Simon agreed, assembling a sandwich from the platters content. “Terrible weather, kept everyone at home I suppose.” He sat back, propping one knee up against the edge of the table. “Good for me, I admit. Not much to do but listen to stories and drink.”
“Mm.” Gabrielle sipped from her mug. “Bad weather here too.” She had one eye out for the crowd around the pyre, spotting three Amazons casually strolling the area, fully armed, and Bennu leaning against the support of one of the stalls. “So you left after the freeze broke?”
“I did.” Simon said. “Ran through all the tales I had, twenty times over and both them and I were tired of each other. So I made my way down out of the mountains and I heard about this place.”
Gabrielle regarded him. “About the shrines?”
He shook his head. “No. I heard about those closer in.” He said. “I heard there was… oh my goodness, those are beautiful animals.” He pointed through the crowd. “Those, right there.”
Gabrielle didn’t turn her head. “The desert horses? Stallion and mares?” She said. “They’re getting a lot of attention, yeah.”
Simon looked at her. “So you know where they’re from?” He smiled briefly. “You have traveled.”
“Anyway, I heard there was a spring market and so I thought maybe I’d find a new audience.” Simon concluded. “I figured this far away from the big cities, I’d have some fresh stuff. I got to travel with some tribes, up there in the mountains. Live in tents on the open spaces. Different.”
“Looking forward to hearing about them.” Gabrielle said. “I never got to spend any time in a yurt, but I saw them traveling through those parts.”
He studied her with frank curiosity. “Strapped on a pack on someone’s back?” He asked. “No offense, you seem so young to have been so far.”
“Ah.” Gabrielle chuckled. “It was a busy couple of years, it’s true.” She took another sip of her ale, casually watching as some of the merchants settled at a nearby table, giving her a brief nod of recognition that she returned with a lifted hand.
Simon chewed contentedly at his sandwich for a few moments, then his eyes shifted up to the slope coming down from Amphipolis. He swallowed. “Ah, now – who’s this coming down at us?” He asked. “That tall, dark lass.”
Gabrielle turned her head. “That.” She said. “Is Xena.” She said, smiling fondly at the oncoming figure, in its leathers, sword hilt visible over the left shoulder. Cait was with her, twiddling her long dagger and she let out oa breath, suspecting she knew where they’d come from.
“Ahh.” Simon turned all the way around and stared unabashedly. “The great warrior. Even in the mountains of Macedonia they have heard of her.” He glanced at Gabrielle. “What is she doing here?”
“She lives here.” Gabrielle’s eyes twinkled a little, as she casually waved her hand in a circle. “That yellow hawk head’s her mark.”
Simon digested that, slowly turning and looking around before returning his attention to Gabrielle. “Why here?” He asked. “The word I heard most of her was as a traveling brigand.” He said. “This seems an odd place to find her.”
Gabrielle’s head tilted a bit. “Outdated news.” She said, briefly. “But she lives here because she was born here. It’s her home.” She watched Xena pause to speak to Redder, who had intercepted the two women, and guessed he was informing her about the resistance to the pyre after her partner planted her hands on her hips in visible exasperation.
“It could well be, the stories I had heard were old ones.” Simon said. “I’ve been more or less in the hinterlands a long while. Before I was in Macedonia, I spent time much further to the north, studying herbs there.” He poured himself a cup of ale. “Do they interest you?”
“Only to cook with.” Gabrielle waited, then she caught Xena’s eye, making a hand signal at her as she continued onward in their direction. “Do you?”
Simon chuckled a little. “Enough not to starve. I look for herbs to make teas.” He explained. “Infusions. To help the body.”
Xena reached the tree and it’s layout of tables, weaving her way around them with Cait on her heels. She came up to where Gabrielle was sitting and took the seat next to her, the servers hurrying over to bring her a mug. “Hey.”
“Hey.” Gabrielle returned the casual greeting. “This is Simon.” She introduced her companion. “He’s a storyteller. Hasn’t been around these parts much.” She gave Cait a wave as the young Amazon took a seat nearby.
Xena digested the spoken and unspoken message. “Hello, Simon.” She said, in a dutiful tone. “Welcome to Amphipolis.” She directed her attention to her partner. “We’re gonna bring out that oracle for the pyre. Redder tells me it’s gonna be a fight.”
“Apparently.” Gabrielle nodded. “What happened with Corman?”
“Going to the pyre too.”
Gabrielle’s nose wrinkled a little bit, but she remained silent, as Xena faintly shrugged her shoulders. “His people think something’s being hidden, they want him kept.”
“Or not used to dead bodies.” Cait commented dryly. “Silly really.”
Xena and Gabrielle exchanged a long glance, and Gabrielle reached out to rest her hand on Xena’s knee. “Think they’re going to fight?”
“Only if they’re even more stupid than I think they are.” Xena took the mug the server handed her, as a platter was slid in front of her from the other side. “Thanks.” She waited for the man to leave, then she handed the plate over to Cait. “Here.”
“Thank you. “ Cait picked up her own plate and Xenas and trotted off with them, back towards the Amazon stall that now had quite a crowd around it. “I’ll be quick about it. I don’t want to miss the fun.” She called back over her shoulder.
A slightly awkward silence fell. “So ah.” Simon finally spoke up when it had gone on too long. “Can I ask what the fracas is over there?” He pointed a thumb over his shoulder. “I noticed it when I was coming into the market.”
Gabrielle’s eyebrows twitched. Xena cleared her throat in response and settled her elbows on her chair arms and folded her long fingers together. “Someone had an accident.” She said, briefly. “His friends don’t want us to burn the body.”
Simon looked from one to the other. “Ah huh?”
“They think it wasn’t an accident.” Gabrielle said. “But you know, you gotta do what you gotta do, so we’re going to do that. You might want to just hang out here.”
Simon studied her in silence for a bit, as Xena drank from her mug, gaze fastened on the crowd clustering below in the market.
From the corner of her eye, Gabrielle spotted a group of four militia, carrying a stretcher down from the barracks, and she could see the body on it wrapped neatly in linen, covering it and outlining the form of the arms crossed and hands folded under it’s surface.
“You burn your dead.” Simon finally stated. “Is that the custom here?” His expression was calm. “I’ve seen a lot of different ones. In the mountains, they place bodies in caves, let them dry out.”
“We do.” Xena answered. “Too damp here for leaving them and burying will just draw animals.” She put her mug down and stood up, giving her leathers a little shake to settle them. “Shoulda worn the metal.” She said, in a mournful tone. “This is gonna end in a scrap.”
“Probably.” Gabrielle got up and reached for her staff. “Let’s go see if we can stop it before it starts.”
Simon also stood. “I’ll go with you.” He adjusted the strap on the bag slung over his back. “Sometimes an impartial witness is useful.”
Xena led the way through the tables and down the path from the outdoor inn and as she passed through the start of the market a group of Amazons joined them, Solari and Nala, Cait and Paladia, Renas, and catching up at the trot, Eponin.
Simon eyed them. “A good afternoon to you… ah… “
“Amazons.” Xena said. “Don’t call them ladies unless you want your tongue spliced.”
They joined the crowd that was gathering, some in support of the oracle, some in support of the town, some just curious, some in militia tabards who had encircled the stretcher as it arrived.
Xena threaded her way through, gently nudging aside people who turned in irritation only to back up when they recognized who it was, tapping others so in a wave there was a path opened up to the pyre.
Bennu was there, legs braced, hand on his dagger, standing between the oracle’s retinue and the wood stack with a line of militia backing him up. “Genr’l.” He greeted Xena as she arrived. “Feller here has a issue.”
“Get the bodies on the pyre, Benny.” Xena said, waiting for him to nod in acknowledgement before she turned and faced the oracles men. “What’s your problem?” She asked, in a mild tone. “He’s dead.”
The second in command stepped right up to her, with the leader of the Ithacans next to him. “He’s had foul play done to him. We want justice.” The man said. “I am Dennen. I was first in his service.”
Xena regarded him. “I’ll try to find the guy who choked him. But that’s got nothing to do with what we’re doing here.”
“There were signs on him.” Dennen said, firmly.
“There were. But they’re not gonna last. I’ve seen all there is to see.” Xena said. “I don’t care if you called half of Athens here it aint gonna matter.”
“Who is that?” Simon whispered to Gabrielle.
“Who, that guy?”
“The dead guy.”
“Oracle of Ares.” Gabrielle whispered back. “He slipped and fell down the steps up to Ares shrine, cracking his head.”
“Then someone choked him to death.”
“And if you yourself killed him?” Dennen asked. “Who then knows what the truth is?”
That caused a round of muttering. Xena waited it out, aware of the fidgeting soldiers now on either side of her and at her back. “I could have.” She finally said. “But I didn’t, so it doesn’t matter.”
“Git.” Cait muttered, under her breath.
“Moron.” Paladia disagreed. “Cottage cheese for brains.”
The militia behind them had wedged the stretcher with it’s contents into the pyre, and behind that, on the back side of the pile two men had just laid Corman’s blood soaked body behind it.
Dennen looked at his little group, and the Ithacans and then back at Xena. “We are not fools, we know we can’t stop you. But we will bear witness of this to the high Priest when he gets here, and then it’s in his hands.”
Fair enough. Xena motioned for one of the soldiers, holding a torch, to come forward. “Witness this.” She pointed at the wine merchant, who was standing by with his skins and curled her index finger at him. “C’mere.”
“Oh cripes.” Gabrielle exhaled. “I hate when she does that.”
“Does what?” Cait murmured.
Xena took the torch from the soldier then when the wine seller came over, she opened her mouth and pointed at it. The man hesitated, then raised the spout of his skin and squeezed the surface, sending a stream of wine through the air.
Xena moved a little to intercept it, sucking in a mouthful then turning and stepping up onto the first wood of the pyre. She paused a beat, then she brought the torch up and blew the wine into it, sending a fireball into the tinder tucked between the logs and setting it on fire.
It was dry, and caught at once and she hopped back away from the pile, handing off the torch to Bennu as she licked her lips while the army all burst into cheers and whistles.
After a brief pause, the crowd joined in, save the small group in the center, who kept their expressions sour and lips pursed, but were quickly ignored as the merchants went back to their stalls, and a player tuned his lute nearby.
The men turned and walked away, heading towards the Ithacan’s camp.
Ignoring them, Xena went over and draped one arm over Gabrielle’s shoulders, turning to watch as the pyre went up, consuming the wood and the tinder, and the two bodies in its midst and for a moment, they were still together with quiet memories between them.
The creek wasn’t deep, and the five children were having a blast scooting among the ripples and rocks, sliding over the algae slick surfaces as they made their way downstream, the puppies trotting along on the side of the water after them.
“Fun!” Butterbean yodeled, as she went over a small cascade that Dori had skimmed over just in front of her.
They had forgotten about the cave, in the fun of the water and it was just the brief glimpse of the hide of a canoe that caught Cari’s eye as she paused in the shallows. “Dor!” She called out, grabbing a branch to keep herself still. “Dor!”
Dori turned in the water and took hold of a rock, pulling herself up and looking back. “What you do?”
“Boat!” Cari pointed. “Stucked!”
Warin caught a branch behind her and climbed over the rocks, peering past her. “Yes!”
Butterbean and Dori made their way back against the current, holding on to roots and branches, with little Gabrielle hastening behind them. They reached the rock Cari was holding and gathered at the edge of the creek. There was a very large tree looming over the water, and in it’s tangled roots was the canoe.
“Huh.” Dori carefully climbed up the slick roots and got to it. There was a hole in the side, and it was half full of water. “Where’d they go?” She looked around.
Warin got up next to her and opened his mouth, sucking in the air and flaring his nostrils. Butterbean moved a little further down and put her hands on the branches, peering past them. “Don’t see nothing.” She said, after a moment.
“Smell something.” Warin dug his claws into the tree bark and pulled himself forward. “Look.” He pushed the canoe to one side, exposing a large, dark stain. “Smell that.”
Dori drew in a breath, and over the smell of the water and the algae on the rocks, and the pungent bark she smelled what he did. “Someone got owie.” She said, after a brief pause.
“Blood.” Little Gabrielle confirmed.
Dori looked back at Cari, who was watching in wary, wide eyed silence. “Bad.” She concluded, turning all the way around to peer across the creek to where the two dogs were seated, watching them with blinking eyes. “Buppit, go get mama.”
Buppit merely looked at her, cocking his head to one side.
“Dumb doggos.” Cari said.
“I go.” Butterbean said. “We should get some bigs.” She started to make her way back and then stopped as a large, black form appeared from between the trees. “Oh!”
“Guff.” Dori moved ahead of her and splashed through the shallows, the pressure of the water against her thighs. “Guff, good boy.” She called encouragingly to him. “C’mere!”
Ares came to the edge of the creek and waited, extending his nose out as Dori came over and patted his cheek. “Guff, go get Mama and Boo, okay?” She commanded, pulling his head down so she could look into his eyes. “Go get them!”
Unlike Buppit, Ares made a little gruff noise, then gave her a lick on the nose before he turned and dashed off, disappearing into the forest with a patter of big feet against the ground.
“Smart.” Butterbean commented. “Good dog.”
“Wolf.” Dori stuck her tongue out at Buppit and Teo, who came over. Buppit happily licked her face, his small tail waggling enthusiastically. “Guff knows Boo and Mama. “ She patted Buppit on the head. “He’s Boo’s friend, not dumb like this doggo.”
Warin had climbed all the way up to the canoe and turned it over. Aside from the blood, there was a large tear in the hide surface. “Hit dem rocks.” He called back over his shoulder. “Make a hole here.”
Cari climbed up next to him and hunkered down, examining the canoe. She reached out to lift out a small bag from inside the craft, and she opened it, peering inside. “Dor!” She turned and handed the bag to her friend, now sloshing up out of the creek and onto the tree roots. “Look!”
“Lemme see.” Dori sat down and upended the bag. “Oh!” She exclaimed, in a surprised tone, and the forest dwellers came over to see what it was. “Shiny rocks.” On the ground, fallen between the twisted roots there were a half dozen chunks of softly glittering gold, each the size of a child’s thumb.
“Pretty.” Butterbean commented.
“Mama has some.” Dori agreed. “Boo gave them.” She gathered the rocks and put them back in the bag. “We can take them and see what to do when mama and Boo get here. Boo says these are in trouble.”
“The rocks?” Warin asked in puzzlement. “How come?”
“Boo says.” Dori stated emphatically. “Boo says, it means it is.” She tied up the bag and handed it back to Cari. “You hold that Car?” She asked. “You found.”
“Sure.” Cari took it, and tied it onto her belt. “I gots.”
Dori went over and examined the wrecked canoe. Aside from the puncture, the wooden frame was also shattered, and she bent to look at it. “Bloods.” She touched the spar, stained rust red. “Maybe them got owie?” She said. “Got cuts and so it went here?”
Little Gabrielle hunkered down next to her. “Could.” She said. “But where’d they go?”
All five stood and looked around. The canoe was in the tangle of tree roots, but the tree was up against the rock wall and there was no sign of anyone nearby. Warin climbed over the boat to look at the ground on the other side, but the wash from the creek surged up and everything was wet.
Dori went back into the creek, and started along the bank, edging between the boulders half buried in water that lined it. She went past where Warin was searching and saw a little pool ahead, protected from the current by a circle of rocks.
Butterbean was right behind her and they came around and went into the circle. “Whoa, lookit dat.” Butterbean said. “Seats!”
The rocks had been set in place so that against the bank four or five were lined up and square, giving a surface to sit on and both Butterbean and Dori both went over and sat down, splashing when the water came over their heads.
“Heh heh.” Little Gabrielle chortled. “Funny!”
Dori surfaced and blew out a mouthful of water. “Deep!” She stood up and braced her back against the bank instead, as Butterbean came up, her golden fur covering her eyes.
Cari laughed, rocking back and holding her stomach.
Warin had climbed along the edge of the rock wall and now he sat down on the bank and put his feet in the pool. “This is a made up thing.” He said. “People made it.”
“Yeah.” Dori pushed the wet hair from her eyes and leaned on the edge of the bank. “Like Mama and Boo has behind our house.” She said. “We swim.”
“It’s a good pool.” Butterbean agreed. “Good water.”
“Yeah… oh.” Dori leaned a bit further, and then she pushed herself up onto the bank and squirmed along the muddy edge to get a better look. “Aha!”
Warin scrambled up next to her. “Foots!” He pointed at the impressions Dori had spotted. “They went there.” He added. “Lets find them!”
Dori climbed out of the pool onto the bank, which, here, widened out a little bit making a muddy beach of sorts. On the surface the footsteps were plain, and they led off along the edge of the creek down slope towards a cluster of boulders in the distance.
Cari tugged on Dori’s shirt. “Mama come?”
“Guff can find us.” Dori assured her confidently. “Boo can too.” She squeezed the water out of her shirt and then started forward, following the steps with the rest of the gang behind her.
She could feel the undercurrent. Xena nibbled a piece of meat off the wooden stick between her fingers and let the conversation go past her as she studied the crowd around the outdoor inn.
Down the slope, the pyre had done it’s work, and the air there had cleared and now only smelled like firewood burning, some of the merchants furtively using the edges of it to warm their wineskins.
Her militia and the local merchants were seated having their mid day meal, but the out of town vendors and the men from further were keeping their distance, watching them with wary eyes.
A group of Amazons threaded through the crowd, and approached their table. Xena watched the Ithacans stare at them, one pointing and then two shaking their heads. “Hey Redder.”
Her captain leaned in. “Aye, Xena?”
“What’s the word on that kid?”
He half shrugged. “Even the men what brought him didn’t care for him really. Haughty thing, they said.” He paused. “But most of the rest of them think he got offed for bothering the ladies.” He indicated the oncoming Amazons. “Rankles em.”
Xena’s dark brows twitched.
“Not like where they’re from, I suppose.” The militia soldier said, in a mild tone. “And them lot’s from Ares temple. Mostly men there.” He cleared his throat. “T’army knows where they stand, yeah? Them lot don’t get it. I’d say we should do a dust up but ain’t no one here can match you and we all know it.” He smiled.
Xena folded her arms. “I’ve got nothing to prove to anyone.”
“No, none to us.” Redder said. “But the rest of them don’t’ know. They just heard things, far off. They weren’t there, yeah? Didn’t see you wield the Sword of War and all that.”
“Aye.” Bennu had settled onto a stool on the other side of him. “We were talking about that.” He regarded his leader. “One things to hear, t’others to be there, seeing with own eyes, like we have.”
Xena settled, back, hiking one knee up, and glanced over as Gabrielle rested her hand on it, almost in reflex. “Well I’m not about to start a damn war just to educate them.” She folded her hands together. “Market’ll be over in a few days and they’ll move on.”
“What about that oracle?” Redder asked. “Trouble, that.”
Xena frowned, then a blur of motion caught her attention and she sat up, pushing herself up braced on the arms of the chair as she watched a dark speck coming down out of the town at speed come through the gates. “Uh oh.”
Gabrielle’s voice cut off and she looked around. “What?”
A woman screamed, and then shouts went up as people started running in all directions.
“What the Hades?” Bennu stood up and looked around for the source of the alarm.
Ares had reached the bridge and was racing across it, sending visitors in every direction in terror as they spotted him, and a moment later panic struck the market and livestock as the animals caught his scent.
The townspeople looked around in puzzlement, bewildered at the chaos, and above it all Xena’s loud whistle sounded, piercing and sharp and she was on the move, vaulting over the table as people scrambled to get out of the way.
“What’s going on?” Simon asked Gabrielle. “What’s wrong?”
“Oh no.” Cait had just seated herself and now she leaped up and grabbed Paladia’s sleeve. “It’s Ares!”
Gabrielle got up on her chair to see what was going on, watching as Xena somersaulted over a line of gawkers and got to the front of the crowd, whistling again as the oncoming black wolf saw her and changed direction, heading for her at a gallop. “That’s not good.”
“Hey!” Paladia let out a yell and pointed. “That moron’s got a crossbow!”
Bennu cursed and bolted with Redder just behind him, shoving their way through the crowd with rough urgency. “Hold there!” Bennu hollered. “Put that damn thing down!”
“Xena!” Gabrielle bellowed at the top of her voice. “Ware!”
It happened with impossible speed, the army reacting, the Amazons reacting, the burly merchants yelling, the Ithacans throwing up their weapons and loosing bolts at almost point blank range.
Xena whirled to face them hearing Gabrielle’s warning, her hand going for her sword hilt and then stopping as she focused on the crossbows and her hands moved so fast they were nothing but a blur as she caught three bolts and kicked the fourth at the last moment out of its path in the air sending it spinning to the earth.
Dropping the arrows she yanked her dagger from it’s sheath and cocked her hand. “Put em down!” She bellowed. “Next one who fires gets this between the eyes!”
“It’s coming right at you!” A woman screamed, getting behind one of the casks. “You’re mad!”
Ares reached her, standing up on his hind legs and putting his huge paws on her shoulder, leaning forward to lick her on the cheek. “Grouf.” He barked urgently.
Xena gave him a pat on the side. “What’s wrong, boy?” She watched as he took a bit of her leathers in his jaws and started to back off, pulling her towards the town, making little growling noises. “Okay, got it. Got it.”
“What’s up?” Gabrielle was at her side.
“Don’t know. Let me go with him.” Xena sheathed her dagger. “Maybe someone fell in a mud hole up the mountain. I’ll be back.” She clasped Gabrielle’s shoulder. “Thanks for the yell.” She turned and motioned the wolf forward. “G’wan Ares. I’m with ya.”
Whirling, the wolf started running back towards the bridge and a second later Xena was at his side, keeping pace as they reached and crossed the river and headed up to the gates, people scattering ahead of them in all directions.
Simon had come to join Gabrielle, peering past her at the two disappearing figures. “Excuse me. Did she call that animal Ares?”
The Ithacans and the men from Ares Temple were staring at her, and there was enough quiet for Simon’s question to resonate through the crowd.
“Yes.” Gabrielle sighed, after a pause. “It’s his name. Xena raised him from a pup.” She explained. “He lives on the mountain.”
“Blasphemy.” Dennen rasped. “Would we be able to know what the God of War should say to that!”
Gabrielle closed her eyes, then pinched the bridge of her nose briefly. “Let me see… what did he say?” She looked off into the distance a moment. “He said. ‘Xena. You named a dog after me?’ I think that was it...” She said. “And Xena said… ‘It’s not a dog. It’s a wolf. I’d never name a dog after you, Ares.”
“You mock him.”
“No.” Gabrielle shook her head. “I’ve never mocked him. I just have a… “ She considered. “More day to day kind of relationship with him than most everyone else does.”
“Then you’re a liar. He speaks with his oracles, and they are men, and all know this.” Dennen stated flatly. “He has no use for women.”
“Hey now.” Simon held a hand up. “I’ve heard otherwise, you know and..”
“Shut up, vagrant.” Dennen snarled. “Before he cleaves your tongue and you starve to death.” He pointed at Gabrielle. “And you? Every word you say curses you. He will bring death and destruction here in equal measure.” His face had taken on a weird and almost frozen expression. “I can hear him!”
The rest of the oracle’s retinue were staring at him. “He hears!”
Dennen started to shake, and then a moment later he dropped to his knees, then onto his face. “I hear! I hear” He cried out, in almost ecstasy. “My god!”
“Ho boy.” Gabrielle muttered under her breath. “Here we go.”
“What?” Simon whispered.
“Hey.” Ephiny shoved her way through the crowd, carrying Gabrielle’s staff. “Lemme through here before I start knocking your heads together.”
Gabrielle gave Ephiny a smile as her regent arrived to take up an aggressive stance next to her. “Hey.” She took the staff and patted it. “Thanks.”
“No problem.” Ephiny returned the greeting. “Just thought I’d come over in case there was gonna be any fun I don’t want to miss.”
The rest of the oracle’s party gathered around Dennen and knelt, and the crowd gathered around in wary curiosity as they started chanting.
She jerked her chin towards the town. “What’s up?”
“No idea.” Gabrielle kept her voice down. “Ares came down to get her. Hope the kids are okay.”
“Want us to go check?” Cait sidled in. “This is getting a bit ratty.”
Gabrielle slowly let her gaze sweep the crowd, now getting visibly restive. “I’m pretty sure Xe can handle whatever the problem is there.” She said. “And…”
“Retreating aint a good idea here.” Ephiny stated.