A Change of Seasons
Dori stood up, knees and elbows caked in creek mud, stripes of it smeared across her face. Ahead of them was a downslope the creek rushed across, rippling white froth covering a deeper green.
“Gotta swim again.” Warin commented. “But look down there.” He pointed at a thick piling of rocks, leading up to a visible break in the wall. “Dats a cave there.”
The rest of the group came up behind them after climbing through some roots and along the bank. Buppit trotted up and sat down next to Dori, regarding the creek with his head slightly cocked.
“It is.” Dori agreed. “Water’s fast.” She indicated the stretch ahead of them.
“Lots.” Butterbean said. “But look there, it’s sunny.” She pointed at the landing in front of the cave. “We can go dry.”
“And, dere’s berries.” Little Gabrielle said, with a tone of satisfaction. “New.”
Dori considered that. “Hungry.” She said. “Can get some fishes too, but mama’s not here to make them.” She amended regretfully.
“We can eats them anyway.” Warin suggested. “They just squiggle a little.”
“Gross.” Dori said. “No!” She shook her hands in negation and squinted her eyes closed. “No squiggling!”
Warin laughed, splashing the water with both hands. “Swhy you peoples are always hungry you make it cooked all the time. We don’t wanna wait!”
“Yuk.” Dori stuck her tongue out at him. “Mama always fixes the fishes nice. You had some!”
Warin licked his lips. “True.” He admitted, “That was good.”
“Got some meats.” Butterbean reminded them, holding up her pouch. “We can share. Stop that yak yak.”
“Okay.” Dori went back into the water, feeling it’s force against the back of her knees. “Fast.”
“Fun.” Warin grinned, coming in behind her and then leaping into the froth and letting it take him. “Wooo!!!!”
Buppit barked, small ears swiveling.
Butterbean and Little Gabrielle followed their brother, letting out shrieks of glee as they tumbled through the small rapids.
Dori tied her belt tighter, and held out her hand. “C’mon, Car. I gotcha.”
Cari came over, splashing into the water and confidently taking her friend’s hand. “What about the doggos?”
“They come.” Dori moved out into the creek and as she reached waist high the current took her, and Cari after her downstream after their friends.
Buppit barked again, and then bolted after them, with Teo at his heels and then they were swimming in the current, paws working furiously as they chased after their friends.
The rocks were slick and rounded and after a moment of uncertainty, Dori grinned as she glided along. “Fun!” She said, as they slid over a patch of pebbles and then shot through a narrower area where the sound of the water running was louder.
“Fun!” Cari agreed, bumping lightly along in her wake. “We should show mama this.”
“Mama and Boo would do.” Dori agreed.
The three forest dwellers were almost even with the landing and Warin reached out to grab a branch, pulling them into the mud slope as they let out yodels of triumph when they all neatly plucked themselves out of the water and bounced onto dry land.
Dori steered and tumbled them through another narrows and then she caught hold of the edge of a piece of granite just before the landing and swung them both up and around, pulling herself up to her feet. “Go.” She told Cari, who had come in behind her. “I got the doggos.”
“Okay!” Cari carefully got behind her and made her way through the tumble of boulders towards where the forest dwellers were gathered on the landing, looking around, and squeezing the water out of their rough, blue shirts.
Teo and Buppit were swimming hard for her, their tongues lapping the creek surface as Dori braced herself between the rocks. “C’mere!” She ordered them. “Go go!”
Teo reached her first and she grabbed him by the scruff of his neck and shoved him through the opening behind her towards the beach. A sudden rush of water pushed Buppit against her and knocked them both down. She held on to him as the current took them downstream in a swirling rush. “Ooof!”
He whined a little, in her ear.
“Shhh I gotcha!” Dori reached quickly out and grabbed onto the branch that Warin had used to pull himself in and as the current picked up she clamped her hold, her eyes narrowing, jaw tensing.
Xena’s image, if she’d known it.
“Whoa!” Butterbean ran over and got hold of her foot, pulling her back towards the landing.
Dori shifted her grip, one arm wrapped around Buppit as she inched along the branch, fighting against the pull of the water whose volume was rising.
Warin leaned out along the branch. “Gimme!” He pointed at Buppit.
Buppit growled as he was grabbed by the fur and pulled. “Stop!” Dori ordered him. “Be nice!” She squirmed forward, half turning as hands reach out and took hold of her belt and her tunic and a moment later she felt ground under her boots and she could stand up.
The water was still pushing against her but she had solid footing and she leaned forward against it, keeping a grip on the branch as the rest of the children kept a grip on her.
Then they were climbing up over the edge of the creek to the landing, and into the sun. Dori let Buppit down on the ground and he sneezed, shaking himself as Teo came over and bumped noses with him.
Dori shook her arms out, and turned to face the sun, glad of its warmth. “Phoo.” She shook herself, and then raked her hair back out of her eyes. “Good.”
They sat down on the rocks and Butterbean took out her waterlogged jerky, sharing it around as they added that to newly grown berries stripped from the bush nearby. “Nice.” Little Gabrielle said, looking around. “Going to be flowers there.”
The area was nice. Dori kicked her boots against the rock she was sitting on, glad of the sun’s warmth. She noted the water was rising a little, coming up to cover the ground already damp and muddy.
She looked back upstream. “Deep.” She could see the water now covering a lot of the rocks they’d climbed over. “Look.” She pointed at the edge of the landing.
“Going up.” Warin agreed.
Cari got up and went to the edge, looking out over the creek, the sun outlining faint golden highlights in her drying red hair. After a moment she turned and looked at Dori. “We can’t go?”
“Mama and Boo will get us.” Dori responded in utter confidence. “Nothing can stop them.” She finished her handful of berries. “Go go go.”
“So strong.” Cari agreed. “Good!”
Warin regarded them. “Daddy says they are special good.” He remarked. “He likes them a lot.”
“Mama too.” Butterbean. “She said they saved grandpa.”
“Boo and mama fix everything.” Dori hopped up off the rock and went over to the cave opening. “All the time.” She inspected the edge of the rock, leaning close and sniffing it. “People.”
Warin came over and copied her. “Yes.” He agreed. “Lots.” He stuck his head inside cautiously. “Maybe we can find more stuff!”
They dusted their hands off and gathered around the opening, and both Dori and Warin nearly knocked their heads together going inside. “Ow.” Dori rubbed hers. “You can see? You want to go?” She offered, drawing back a little bit.
Warin eased inside then paused, turning to look at her. “Can’t see nothing.” He warned. “Just some more rocks.” He regarded Dori. “You want?” He backed up and got out of her way as she finished wringing out her shirt on the damp ground.
Dori went ahead and went inside, getting past the bend in the path and pausing to blink her eyes and wait, aware of the cluster of small bodies at her back. After a minute, the shadows eased and she could see a little bit ahead of them. “OK.”
“I see.” Dori advanced and as her eyes adjusted further she could make out the narrow path they were treading, the walls on either side and at the end, an open space. She took in a breath and could smell old fire on the air, and a pungent smell she didn’t recognize. “Ew.”
Buppit squirmed through the crowd and pressed against her leg, growling under his breath.
“Gross.” Cari agreed. “Bad smells.”
Dori looked around, seeing rocks, and what looked to her like some sacks, and then on the other side of the cave, she could see another break in the stone going somewhere else. The bad smells seemed to be coming from the sacks, the smell of old fire from the other way out. “Lets go there.” Dori pointed at the back entrance.
“Hear somethings.” Warin said. “Maybe it’s an animal.”
“Maybe we can make friends.” Cari suggested.
“Maybe we can eat it?”
Gabrielle laid her staff over her shoulders and twisted her body to either side, trying to relax the tension that was working it’s way up her spine and into an aching ball at the base of her neck. She was worried about Xena, and worried about the crowd, and she was wishing hard it was all over.
Simon had made his way over to the stage and was preparing to tell one of his stories, setting a small basket on the edge of the platform for any dinars anyone wanted to donate.
“Where’s he from?” Renas asked. “He just show up here?”
“Yeah.” Her queen said. “He’s from Crete, originally. Macedonia recently.”
“He says.” The elder Amazon said, cocking an eyebrow at her queen. “He could say he’s from Mount Olympus and we’d not know the difference.”
“He says.” Gabrielle acknowledged. “But he told me enough about Macedonia that I know he’s been there.” She exhaled. “I’ll be glad if he distracts everyone though.”
Gabrielle loosened her back up a little more, reflecting on the vast change in the elders since the last war. They’d been on the side of the rebels in the tribe, those senior warriors who’d never accepted her right. Renas had been right in the middle of that, all of them full of bluster and sharp tongued argument.
Then Xena had executed one of them right in the council hall, just broken the woman’s neck in a swift crack that had crossed a line and changed.. well, changed everything really because she’d done it not in the heat of battle but at Gabrielle’s command.
Crossroads, and she’d walked through it dragging the rest of the tribe with her and after that, those that figured they didn’t agree with her had left and those that figured there were worse than she was, had stayed and Renas had been one of them.
Gabrielle was glad, in the end. She could now remember the tickle contest that Renas had cornered Xena into on her partner’s acceptance into the tribe and smile, and her relationship with the elders had morphed again to one of acceptance of each other.
“Glad we sold out of all our stuff before all this crap went on.” Renas said, offering Gabrielle a cup of wine. “Those merchants are going north after this, so word’ll get out where it comes from.”
“They will.” Gabrielle accepted the cup. “That last set of necklaces you did were amazing.”
Renas smiled, pleased at the compliment. “Helps to have so much native stone hanging around.” She said. “We had to buy our gems before. Wasn’t anything like that in the old place, and what we could get was small and not great quality. Here?” She laughed. “You trip over nice rocks going to breakfast.”
“Yeah, Xena says the iron ore they’re bringing out of that back valley’s really good quality too.” Gabrielle agreed.
Cait was nearby, sharing the plates of now chilled lunch from the outdoor inn with Paladia. “Glad that lot went back to their camp.” She indicated the Ithacans and the rest of the oracles party, who had moved their gear from the barracks to the tents near the river.
“Good riddance.” Bennu had settled himself on a bench near where Gabrielle was standing. “Noxious bastards.” He said. “Got signal, Gabrielle. Guard’s coming back down the river, found that feller what owns them horses.” He nodded towards the paddock. “Good call there, from the genr’l.”
That was a relief. “Yeah.” Gabrielle nodded. “Xe said she’d make a deal with him, if he wanted to sell them to her.”
Simon started his story, his voice echoing softly over the open square. A few travelers had been seated nearby, and they turned to pay attention, and several others wandered over and stood, listening.
Gabrielle tilted her head to catch the words for a few moments, then smiled. It was a simple story about a donkey and she recognized the timber of his voice in telling it, using turns of phrase and pauses in his speech she knew from her own storytelling.
He had a friendly confidence she also recognized, and she could see the people near the stage were enjoying the tale. Nothing really sophisticated, but a solid talent and she hoped he got some dinars out of the effort, intending on tossing a few of her own in the basket if for nothing more than distracting the crowd.
“Here comes trouble.” Renas nudged her knee.
Gabrielle turned to see Cyrene heading in her direction. “Relative trouble being relative, I’d prefer this relative.” She turned and set her staff down as her mother in law arrived. “Hey mom.”
“Where’s Xena?” Cyrene asked. “I thought she was down here.”
“She went back up the mountain.” Gabrielle replied. “Ares came for her.”
Cyrene blinked. “Which one?”
“The wolf.” Gabrielle chuckled. “Probably something Dori found.” She added. “What’s up? You need something?” She sat down and motioned to the seat next to her. “No more trouble up there is there?”
Cyrene half shrugged. “People talking.” She said. “I heard what happened to that kid in the jail. People were fussing about it, and I wanted to ask her what the what, you know?”
“He was a nit.” Cait had heard them, and she turned, finishing up chewing on a winter shriveled pear. “Xena got what she wanted to hear out of him. He admitted he stole those horses.”
“Ah.” Cyrene nodded. “Okay, let me let that be known.”
Gabrielle leaned closer to her. “Why does anyone care? What he did to the Amazons, and to the servers at your inn, and by the gods, what he tried with Dori isn’t enough?”
Cyrene studied her. “Y’know, not everyone around here right now is used to Xena being the be all and end all of this place.” She told her daughter in law. “No one from town minds. But we don’t want these folks to leave here, and tell everyone they see we’re bloodthirsty wenches.”
Gabrielle regarded her wryly.
“We don’t, Gabrielle. “ Cyrene said. “Don’t give me that look.” She wagged a finger at her. “Some of these people are troublemakers, and we’ve had our share of trouble, you know? Lets just get them the Hades out of here drunk and happy. Bad enough they sent for that Priest.”
“Xena’ll take care of them.” Gabrielle said. “But you reminded me I should start mentioning she’s Ares Chosen.” She stood and picked up her staff. “Maybe I can head off some of that trouble before it gets too far.” She regarded the stage, where Simon had just finished his story. “Wish me luck.”
Xena was glad most of everyone was down at the market, there were far fewer people around to ask her what was going on as she powered up the path past the Amazon village chasing after Ares bounding black form.
Idiotic, that she was at this moment in her life and his regretting her choice in naming him as a puppy all those years ago.
Idiotic that her offhanded decision to make a shrine here in the hills of near Thrace was coming back to so firmly bite her in the ass.
Ares reached the level of their cabin and raced past it, diving right into the woods behind the spring as she followed, glad the trees hadn’t gotten their full load of foliage to smack her in the puss as she ducked past branches just budding.
She could smell the green of it, the rich scent of things growing, emerging out of the stillness of winter, releasing from the earth as her boots impacted it, and bruised the light layer of moss newly grown on the rocks and fallen branches.
She’d hunted in these woods, during the cold season. Rabbits mostly, the occasional bird. She had a dozen rabbit skins curing, waiting for her to turn them into pouches, or trim for their boots, or handholds for Gabrielle’s staff, something she’d done way back when they were traveling troublemakers.
Xena ducked under a branch and jumped over a log, hearing the sound of the creek ahead of them as Ares reached the edge of the water and stopped.
He turned around and looked at her.
Xena looked up and downstream, then she looked back at the wolf.
He sat down, and if he could have shrugged his shoulders he would have. Instead he nosed around on the ground, snuffling under some of the leaves.
Great. Xena cast around, then she went to one knee and picked up something, bringing it closer to her eyes to look at it.
Ares got up and snuffled some more, going to stand next to one of the nearby trees and tipping his head up to look up at the branches.
The leaf litter was disturbed – Xena could see tiny footprints scattered around, and as she stood there breathing in the air, she could catch the hint of an animal on it. She went around the tree and then spotted the claw marks going up.
She leaped and caught a branch, pulling herself up to where she could see a cache in one of the twists of the trunk and a moment later she could see a bag tied off securely. “Ah hah.” She looped one arm around the trunk and opened the sack, finding a collection of trinkets, rocks and a carefully folded sack that had once held what her nose told her was venison jerky.
One of the small leather bags inside seemed heavy, and she opened it, spilling the contents into the palm of her hand.
She blinked, not expecting to see gold nuggets.
After a brief pause, she put everything back in the sack and left it where it was, releasing her hold on the branches and dropping to the ground with a thump.
For the first time, she felt a pang of concern. Dori and her friends played incessantly in the woods, it was as familiar to her as the inside of their cabin, and yet her thumbs pricked and she went quickly to the side of the creek, and then into it, splashing into the current as it came up to her thighs.
“Growf.” Ares barked gruffly at her.
“Stay there.” Xena waved him off. “I got it now, boy. Leave it to me.” She started downstream, sweeping her head from side to side looking for signs of the five children, aware now that the flow of the creek was stronger and the level higher than it had been when she and Cait had made the journey the other night.
Of course. The snowmelt higher in the range was now coming down and freezing her ass in the bargain. She cursed softly under her breath, and then she simply dove forward into the water and let the current take her.
Damn it was cold. She shook the wet hair out of her eyes and settled into a fast stroke, keeping her head above water and watching on either side of creek for signs of anyone passing. She almost missed the boat tipped to one side, but caught it at the last moment and got to the bank, pulling herself up and out of the water.
A hide kayak, from the Amazon village. She turned it over and felt a chill that had nothing to do with the water, seeing the damage, and the deep rust stains on the side of the craft. “Damn.” Xena ran her fingers over the break, seeing the hatchet marks that had split the wood frame and punctured the covering.
She let the craft drop and moved on, going along the bank and stopping when she saw a disturbance in the dirt, a scuffle of small boots and dog feet, but no larger prints. She went on faster, half on the ground, half in the water as the rising creek started to claim the banks and parts of them broke off under her steps.
She came to the downslope, and saw a thick ruffling of rapids, then she recognized the spot she was in, and the wall on the other side, with the gap that was the cave.
“Figures.” She exhaled. The water was almost up to the entrance and she didn’t waste any more time, leaping back into the center of the creek and finding out a bit too late the current was rising faster than she’d anticipated when a surge of water knocked her off balance.
She managed to twist and land but then she was tumbling through the surf and going downhill in it, out of control as she slammed against the rocks.
With a curse she grabbed at handholds as stones and underwater logs slipped through her fingers and then the landing where the cave was came up fast and she realized she was going to miss it.
With an effort she managed to catch hold of a rock, then get her body twisted around and her boots under her, launching out of the creek as she slid past and getting a hand on one of the roots of a tree growing up the side of the mountain.
She closed her hand on it, and yanked herself out of the current, slamming up against the wall with a grunt. But the force here was lessened, and she climbed up using the tree as a ladder and squirmed through the branches back up to where the opening to the cave was.
The creek was sucking the earth away from it, and as Xena moved past the last branch she saw the tree itself start to move.
She watched it, then she returned her attention to the rocks, hoping like Hades that’s where the kids ended up. She didn’t want to think about them going any further down the creek.
With a shake of her head, she climbed over the rocks and got down on her knees, squirming inside the opening, trying not to think about getting stuck inside mountains.
“Where’d they go?” Warin stood and looked around in the chamber they’d discovered. “They was here.” He sniffed the air. “Can smell them.”
It was stuffy inside the cave. Dori went around the edges of it, looking for a way out besides the one they used to get in. “Over here.” She found an opening. “They go there?”
Warin and Butterbean came over and stood next to her. “This is no fun.” Butterbean said. “Too dark.” He poked his head inside the opening and sniffed deeply. “They went here.” He said, with a sigh. “We go?”
Dori stood, considering. Then she moved into the opening and went forward a few steps, straining her eyes to make out details in the deep glooms. “Think they got lights up there.” She said. “Lets go see.”
She led her little posse forward and they walked carefully through the narrow space inside the mountain, where now a trace of moving air brushed against them and brought the scent of burning wood. By unspoken accord they kept quiet, as they turned a sharp bend in the passage and could see another opening at the end.
There, they could see firelight and it cast shadows down towards them, shadows that moved. “Shh.” Dori whispered. “Peoples.”
“Peoples.” Cari was right behind her, looking past her shoulder.
They could hear voices, very softly, and they walked slowly forward, the two dogs with their round ears pricked and their noses twitching.
The voices were soft and light, and held a note of fear. Dori turned her head a little, catching a few words, and then they were close enough to the opening to also hear movement inside.
“Just keep quiet, ya rabbits.” A man’s voice echoed through the cave. “Or I’ll cut ya.”
“Uh oh.” Cari whispered into Dori’s ear. “Bad mens.”
Dori stopped and put her hand out to pause the rest of them, listening hard.
“They’ll miss us.” One of the female voices answered. “You better let us go.”
The man laughed. “They’re not going to miss you girlie – you just wandered off in the forest and got eaten. It’s all wild around here.”
“It’s not, our village is nearby.” Another female voice answered.
“Two girls? No one’ll miss ya.” Another male voice chuckled. “But you’ll have fun, anyway. I bet you come to like us, after we do it. Sacrifice yourself for the gods? Don’t you want to? Like your friend, we heard about the other night?”
“No… that was different.” The first female voice said.
The men laughed. “Girlie, we’re all alike there. No difference.”
“Bad.” Warin uttered.
“Bad.” Dori agreed. “We should go get Boo.”
“Make him dead.” Butterbean nodded. “She do.”
“Did you hear something? What was that?” The first male voice said, suddenly and louder. “Outside there.”
“Uh oh.” Little Gabrielle said. “We should go out.”
“Yeah. Fast.” Dori turned and shooed them before her. “Buppit, go.” She grabbed him by the scruff of his neck and hauled him sideways after her, bumping Cari before them. “Go go go.”
“Hey they’re something out there!” The male voices now were much louder and nearer, and the children bolted through the darkness of the corridor, as a torch flared and sent bright light after them. “Kids! Get them!”
“Go go!!!” Dori urged, as she heard boots coming up on them fast. “Go out!!!”
“Get back here you little runts!”
Xena squirmed through the opening and came up into a crouch, her nose wrinkling as she caught a whiff of something dead close by. She could see a sack laying near the rock wall, but she didn’t waste any time with it when she heard the water sloshing into the entrance behind her.
“Gonna be one of those days. I said that when I got up this morning.” She muttered.
The room where the young Amazon had been the last time was empty, and she went past the spot to the rear of the cavern, bending close to the ground as she saw muddy footprints.
Tiny boots. Paws, other kind of paws. “That’s my gang.” She muttered, turning sideways to slide through the opening when she heard a clatter of motion coming at her.
Hastily she pulled herself back and stood clear, barely missing smacking her head on the curved rock surface as Butterbean almost hit her leg in a rush of small bodies. “Hey!”
“Ah!” The forest dweller squeaked in alarm. “Somebody’s here! Ow!”
Warin popped through with a rock raised in his hand, yelling his head off as he aimed for Xena’s knees, little Gabrielle right behind him. “Go way!” He boldly shouted. “I make you dead!”
“Hey!” Xena yelled back. “It’s me! Knock it off!” She fended off the miniature attack, wishing she’d worn her armor. “Stop that!”
Warin dropped the rock and hugged her leg instead. “Auntie Xe!”
“Boo!” Dori went for her. “Bad mens! They behind us!” She tugged at her parent’s shirt anxiously. “Mean people!” She pointed back the way they’d come. “They chased us!”
“Okay kiddos, don’t worry. They’re not gonna chase me.” Xena got around and drew her sword in the uncomfortably small space. “Get outside!” She told them. “Be careful!” She added as two men were now in the hallway coming at her, weapons drawn. One had a torch in his hand and she blinked past the glare at them.
“Who is that?” One man yelled. “Get out of here!”
“Hold it, boys.” Xena lifted her sword, swinging it to one side as she got between the men and the entrance. The sun from outside was flickering as the children bolted outside and she took a step back to give herself some room. “Stop!”
The men came around the corner into the outer chamber, and halted, when they saw her. Outlined by the hazy sun, they couldn’t decipher her features but she was obviously no kid. “Who are you?” One of the men challenged. “What are ya doing here?”
Xena shifted slightly, making sure her sword was visible to them. “Might as you the same.”
“Boo!” Dori was behind her. “They got some zuzu back back there.”
“Stay outside, Dori.” Xena told her. “I got it.”
“Wet.” Her daughter informed her. “Buppit’s going to fishes.” She stamped her feet and splashed the water seeping into the cavern. “We go get mama?”
Xena watched the two men. “You kids just stay back. Let me take care of this then we can go find mama.” She said, then drew in a breath and let out a yell. “Amazons!”
Far off, inside the rock she heard yells of response, young and frightened.
The water sloshed in further. “We were just hunting.” One of the men said, eyeing her sword, and now better able to see her features. “We found some kids out here.”
“Boo, I think them are tied!” Dori said. “They said!”
“Found some kids, huh?” Xena stared at them.
“Those kids’r lying.” The second man stated. “We didn’t do nothin. Just taking some shelter.”
Xena drew breath, watching the men watch the entrance, licking their lips, torchlight glinting on weapons. She shifted and they moved around her, towards the shadow filled alcove. The path back was now clear, but leaving them here with the kids was no option.
“Dori, c’mere.” Damn good thing Gabrielle wasn’t here. She reached down and pulled one of her boot knives from its sheath. “Take this, and go let them loose, okay?”
“Sure.” Dori trotted over and took hold of the knife in both hands.. “C’mon Buppit.” She went past the two men into the darkness, with the dog running after her. “I go!”
“We go!” The rest of the kids piled into the cavern and raced after her. “We got them Auntie Xe!” Little Gabrielle called over her shoulder. “No problem!”
“No! Stay… “ Xena spread her arms out as the men started to move and got between them and the passage. “Damn it!” She growled, as the two men bolted, twisting sideways to get out the entrance, scraping themselves raw on the rock with yelps of pain. “Chickenshits! I’ll find you and cut your damn heads off!”
A splash, and a yell, and they were gone, the creek taking them off as it surged into the cavern, coming up halfway on her boots.
“Son of a Bacchae.” With a disgusted sigh, she sheathed her sword and cocked her head, listening to the squeals and yells and judging the rescue well under way. Dodging to one side she knelt next to the odious bag, using her other boot dagger to cut it open and look inside.
Even a long, hard life full of gore and battle didn’t immune her to some shocks, she discovered, as an involuntary gasp sucked air into her lungs with enough force to make her choke, and her blue eyes popped wide open. “What the…”
One long, frozen moment later, she twisted the bag shut and lifted it, standing and going to the narrow entrance and squeezing through it. Then she quickly climbed up along the side of the rocks to a scrubby bristlecone pine growing out of the side of the wall and fastened the bag to it.
She jumped down just as the kids and dogs burst from the cave, with two bedraggled just past adolescent figures after them. “Good job, Dor.” She called out to her daughter, who was in the lead, with Buppit dancing around her, small tail wiggling.
“Boo I got them!” Dori came running over to her proudly. “Look!” She gestured behind her at the two older girls. Xena took the knife back as she lifted her daughter up, cradling her on one shoulder. “I did it!”
The two young Amazons were looking at her with utter relief. “Thank the gods.” The nearer one gasped. “Where are those guys?” She looked around wildly.
“Ran.” Xena said briefly, indicating the creek. “Lets get out of here.” She eyed the girls. “Then you can tell me what’s going on.” She let her voice drop meaningfully.
They stared at her with widened, uncertain eyes. “We didn’t do anything!” One blurted. “We were just on patrol.”
“You broke da boat.” Butterbean said, pointing upstream. “Dere’s blood there.”
“Blood.” Warin agreed, nodding his small, silver hued head. “We saw.”
The two Amazons both flushed, and looked away, as Dori put her arm around Xena’s neck. “We go with the fishes Boo? It’s fun.” She pointed downstream. “Fast.”
Xena let her down, ruffling her damp hair, and then looked at them all, from the older girls to Cari seated on a rock with her arms around Teo. “Water’s too high, Dor. Let’s cross over and go that way.” She pointed through the forest. “Path there’ll go up to the village. We can get dried off before your mama sees us.”
“And have cookies.” Butterbean nodded confidently, unfazed. “Good.”
“Cookies! Yay.” Dori danced in a circle. “Let’s go!”
Xena stood and then waded into the creek, bracing her muscular legs. “One at a time, I’ll walk ya across.” She held out her hands. “You first, Cari.”
“I go.” Cari said. “You help Teo?”
“I got him. Don’t worry about it.” Xena took hold of the dog’s ruff and started across, plowing through the swirling water. “Everyone’s gonna be fine.”
The general atmosphere had calmed, by the time Gabrielle finished her second story, seated on the stage in a casual pose as those seated at the tables gathered and listened. She’d picked short, mild tales just to gauge interest but now some of the militia had taken seats, and were grinning at her.
She took a break and sipped cider from her mug, glancing casually around while she probed for Xena, sensing mild aggravation but nothing more coming from her. But still she had to wonder, what had she found? What had Ares come to get her for?
Was it dangerous? Was the irritation just nothing more than impatience she hadn’t found whatever it was?
Frustrating, their unreliable, mostly emotional link that over the years had grown into something they’d just melded into their lives, convenient at times like this when they were apart in that she knew there was nothing horrific going on and yet prodding her curiosity because she didn’t know what it was.
It was like a fly, really. A big horse fly buzzing around in your peripheral vision, not landing, not bothering you overtly and yet…
And yet. It could land at any time and bite you on the ass.
“Can we have one with some fighten in it, Gabrielle?” Redder spraddled his legs over one of the benches, a tankard at his elbow. “The Spartan one, how about?”
“Ah… that’s a long one.” Gabrielle chuckled easily. “And you have to put up with the fact that a lot of the details came from Xena. As in there aren’t many, since I wasn’t there for the parts on the boat.”
The soldiers chuckled. “We was with you at the gates.” Redder reminded her. “Saw all that.”
“We did.” Another soldier agreed. “How about that one with that big sea creature? Where the genr’l stopped the ocean like.”
“That’s a good one.” Redder agreed. “With that sword. Yeah.”
Two different choices. One, outlined her soulmate’s abilities as a warrior, the other.. Gabrielle pondered that. The other revealed her more than human side. Was that a useful thing here and now?
“Okay, give me a few minutes to get this down, and I’ll tell the Spartan one.” Gabrielle indicated her mug. “Maybe save the other one for after dinner.”
The militia continued to gather around, taking seats as the servers came over with hopeful looks, coming back with trays of mugs as hands were raised in response.
Gabrielle slowly sipped her cider, it’s crisp light bite tickling her tongue. Made from the last summer’s pears, stored in Cyrene’s cellars it was slightly fermented but mild enough for everyone even children to drink it.
It reminded her of home and childhood, in a far off kind of way. They had pear orchards in Potadeia, both yellow and deep purple ones, and gathering them in the summer had been a task for all the children of the town bringing back baskets and baskets of them.
And a few stolen away and tucked into a sack. Gabrielle smiled to herself, remember sitting out under the stars with the flock, nibbling them, the purple kind, the same ones that had gone into the juice she was drinking now.
Simon came over with his own cup and sat down on the edge of the stage next to her. “I like your style, Gabrielle.” He said, with a smile. “You’ve really got the talent.” He added. “And some of the others here tell me you have a lot of stories tucked away.”
“Ah.” Gabrielle gazed fondly out over the market square. “Yeah, I’m going to tell one of Xe’s in a few minutes. We had some trouble with the Spartans a while back that makes for some good tales.”
“Gabrielle, bit of bread and sausage for ya?” Redder got up and brought a platter over. “Need some strength for this next one.”
Gabrielle accepted one of the meatrolls, and took a bite of it, pausing in mid chew as she felt something from Xena in a sudden, nape prickling way.
A bit of shock, and she almost inhaled herself in pure reaction, sensing the startled surprise that was uncommon to her worldly partner. Shock, mixed with horror, and she could almost feel Xena’s eyes opening up wide in reaction as her own did.
“Something wrong?” Simon asked, watching her.
Then it faded, and was replaced with a bit of grimness. “Maybe.” Gabrielle swallowed her mouthful and washed it down with a swallow of cider.
Should she just go and find out? Gabrielle probed gently, but sensed nothing now but the businesslike energy that was the norm, but she slowly looked around and after a moment she met Cait’s eyes.
As though summoned, the young Amazon left off what she was doing and came over, putting her belt knife back into it’s sheath. “Hello.”
“Hi.” Gabrielle said. “Want to do me a favor?”
“Absolutely.” Cait responded without hesitation. “Would you like me to go see what Ares wanted?”
Gabrielle smiled in reflex. “Am I that transparent?”
Cait just looked at her, head cocked slightly to one side.
“Yes, please do that.” Her queen responded. “I just want to make sure all the kids are okay. They can get into a lot of mischief.”
“Right.” Cait turned and started off, winding her way through the market, pausing to lean next to the seated Paladia and whisper in her ear.
Paladia rolled her eyes and then pointed over to the Amazons stall. Both nodded, and Cait went on her way towards the river bridge, breaking into a lope as she cleared the crowd.
Simon was regarding her in a bemused fashion. “You’re a little odd, Gabrielle.” He said, in a conversational tone. “But I suppose you know that.”
That caused her to chuckle audibly. “I do, I guess.” She went back to her mug, alternating chews and sips. “This is not your typical border town. We’re not your typical border town people, despite Xe being born here, and me being from Potadeia.”
Simon looked around, and then he looked back at her. “I haven’t encountered Amazons like this before. I know there were a few tribes in the north, but they mostly stayed hidden and never mingled with regular townsfolk. They were ferocious.”
“They can be.”
“One of the nomad tribes in hills told me they had stories about men… older boys sometimes, being taken capture by Amazons.” He said. “Used to make children with.”
Gabrielle nodded. “That’s how they do it. But in these parts they just ask.” She indicated the army, the townsfolk, and the market. “No one takes anyone.” She finished her meatroll and dusted her fingers off. “They don’t have to, for one and everyone respects that this actually is Xe’s hometown.”
Simon pondered that for a moment in silence. “They say she’s a bloodthirsty killer.” He inclined his head towards the market. “No offense to you.”
“None taken. She can be.” Gabrielle let her hands rest on her knees. “She’s earned all of her reputations honestly.”
He folded his arms over his chest. “Your talents could take you anywhere, Gabrielle. Why stay then?”
“I’ve been anywhere.” Gabrielle got up and stretched. “But she’s the love of my life. I go where she goes.” She took a step back and then to the side, standing easily at the edge of the stage and waiting as people noticed and started to drift over.
The sunlight, starting to slant to the west and take on a golden hue outlined her and she smiled into its warmth, hitching both thumbs into her belt as she ordered her thoughts, and picked her starting point, letting a grin form as she saw the Ithacans hover at the fringes of the crowd.
In her mind, images formed of that anxious time. That long ride in the dark. Hiding. Fighting. The last desperate gallop towards city gates. That battle yell. Arms closing around her.
“Come.” She unhitched her thumbs and spread her arms out, her voice lifting up over the crowd. “Come hear a tale of a mighty enemy and the single sword that stopped them and turned them back and saved us all from slaughter.”
Xena shook herself as she climbed up onto the banks, feeling the water sucking at her boots, the edge of the banks crumbling under its increasing force. She glanced behind her, seeing the wash of the water coming up and spilling over onto the earth she was standing on. “Nice.”
The children and the two juniors were several body lengths from the edge of the creek, working to rid themselves of some water, the three forest dwellers squeezing the liquid from their linen onesies before squiggling back into them.
Okay. Xena considered a moment, thinking about her choices, then sighing. “Let’s go.” She ordered. “Between those trees, to the right.” She pointed at a faint path. “Move it.”
“We know the way.” Sali, one of the teenagers said. “But we should take the other path.” She pointed to the left. “We’ll go that way and meet you back at the village.”
“Right.” Dina agreed and she went quickly in that direction, with her companion right behind her. “Thanks!”
“Stop.” Xena’s voice shivered the air with deep emphasis, almost a bark in its roughness.
The girls halted, and looked back over their shoulder, as their queen’s consort put her hands firmly on her hips, pinning them with a dour glare.
“Get back here.” Xena said. “I’m not done with you, and you’re gonna stick with me until I am.”
“She’s mad.” Cari whispered to Dori. “That’s yukky.”
Dori regarded her parent. “Yeah. Mad mad.” She made a face.
“Yes ma’am.” The two girls reluctantly came back and fell into line as they started off along the path Xena had indicated.
“Ho ho ho.” Warin chortled to himself.
“Dumbos.” Dori rolled her eyes. “C’mon Buppit.” She watched the two dogs shake themselves much as Xena had, sending a fine spray of moss scented water in a halo around their compact, muscular bodies. “Lets go get cookies.”
Xena led the way along a barely marked hunting trail, stepping in and out of splashes of sunlight as she wound through the forest, ears cocked as she searched the ground for signs of the two men.
They would have to be found. She wasn’t about to put up with pirates in her backwoods, digging for booty and posing a threat to random kids wandering in a space they considered safe.
The woods were quiet, their steps on the ground stirring the leaf litter almost the only sound save the motion of the wind in the branches overhead, and to Xena’s experienced ears that silence told its own tale.
She reached over her shoulder and loosened her sword in its sheath, and then took the bit of hide she used to tie down her dagger and used it to pull her wet hair back into a tail and secure it.
“Boo.” Dori caught up to her. “We’re hungry.”
Xena glanced down at her. “Okay, kiddo. Lets get to the village and we’ll take care of that.” She hopped up onto a line of rocks and walked along them, biting off a grin when Dori followed her, down an incline into a round dell surrounded by trees.
In the center were several cut stumps. The trees that ringed the outside were bare now, but in summer would be fully leaved and close the dell in fragrant privacy. Along one edge, a spring dribbled down the side of the trees and then into the ground again, disappearing.
The two Amazons were looking around, their eyes searching the paths around them. “Where is this?” Dina finally asked. “I’ve never seen this place before.”
“Dis is Boo’s place.” Dori informed her. “Boo and Mama.”
“Its cool.” Butterbean said. “Play good games here.”
“Fun.” Cari added. “Birdies and flowers soon.” She went through a patch of sunlight, glancing up with squinting eyes at it as it lit up golden highlights in her curly red hair. “Bufferlies.”
Dina looked at the side of the depression. “What’s that?” She pointed at a wooden structure, it’s sides battered, one support cracked and leaning crazily to a side.
“Boo goes boom with that.” Dori said. “Whack whack!”
“It’s a practice pell.” Xena lead the way across and towards the narrow gap in the roots that would let them out of the dell. She climbed up the path and at the top paused. “Hold on.” She took a step out and onto the main path, ears straining to catch the meaning of the faint percussion she felt on the soles of her feet.
She knelt and felt the ground with her hand. Then she stood up. “Lets go.” She motioned the group forward. “Village is just down that way.” She started down at a fast ramble, then paused to let out several sharp, loud whistles.
There was no answer, and after a pause, she whistled again in a different sequence, the two dogs pricking up their ears as the sound of large padded feet on ground intercepted them and Ares appeared.
Xena herded them all over a small ridge and then the path to the village appeared, heading downhill from the upper plateau that held their home. She whistled again, and this time there was a response, the guard from the gates coming out to see what was going on.
“What’s up?” Solari dodged around two guards and put her hand on her sword hilt. “Trouble?”
“When isn’t there? Take these kids.” Xena indicated the entire group. “I want to talk to them, but I’ve got something to take care of.” She pointed at the woods. “Might have some trespassers.”
“Got it.” Solari motioned the guard forward. “You heard her, lets get moving.” She said. “Let me get them squared off and I’ll come up and find ya.”
“Boo!” Dori complained. “We go with you!”
“Not this time shortie.” Xena put a hand on her shoulder. “Go with Solari. I’ll be right back.”
Xena knelt. “Dori. There’s some bad guys around and I have to go take care of them.” She whispered. “Be a good girl, okay?”
“I can help!” Dori tugged at her sleeve. “C’mon Boo!!!”
“Not yet.” Xena suppressed a smile. “When you get a little older, I promise you can help.” She ruffled Dori’s hair. “Gwan and go get some cookies. You said you were hungry. I’ll be right back.”
Dori frowned, then she gave Xena a quick hug. “Okay.” She turned and ran back to her friends. “Boo says go get cookies.”
She waited for them to pass through the gates, then she turned and dove back into the woods, with Ares right at her heels.
Gabrielle felt her voice getting a bit rough as she wound the tale down to it’s end, or at least it’s stopping point just before they encountered the awful waves. She lifted her hands and acknowledged the cheers, the militia now thick on the ground in front of where she was standing.
She dropped down the wooden steps to the ground, met by one of Cyrene’s servers who had a faintly steaming mug on a tray. “Tea?”
“Mint.” The server smiled. “Cyrene sent it.”
Mint and honey. Gabrielle appreciatively took a sip of the beverage, feeling it ease her throat immediately. “Thank you.”
She took a step back and sat down on the edge of the stage, where a player was now strolling with a sitar, playing a gentle, wordless tune.
Simon had been sitting at one of the close tables and now he got up and came over to her. “So that was true?” He asked. “I mean, I realize speaking to the soldiers it happened but like that?”
“It’s a little crazy.” He said, in an apologetic tone.
She nodded again.
“Most of your guests think it’s a tall tale.” Simon said, indicating the merchants. “I heard them talking.”
“It’s not.” Gabrielle took another mouthful of the tea. “Wait until they hear the next one. It’s going to make them crazy.”
Simon regarded her with a bemused expression. The sun was starting to turn the sky a rich gold, bathing the river valley in amber and Gabrielle glanced into it, drawing in a breath filled with the scents of the cookpits and the smell of beaten river grass from the races that had just finished.
So for a moment she was still, and he watched the sun gild her, glancing off her short cut pale hair and still winter pale skin. His initial thought of her youth stood, but as he watched her profile, and saw the firm set of her jaw and the supple power of her body he could look past that now.
The timbre of her voice had a stolid maturity to it that belied the lack of lines in her face. He had listened to the story she’d told, details coming effortlessly from her lips, eyes half closed, obvious to him that she was describing things from her own knowledge.
Not a story heard from someone else. He knew the difference, could hear it in his own voice when he told tales from history, or from things he’d seen with his own eyes and so, unlike the Ithacans and the merchants he believed what she’d said.
She opened her eyes and looked at him, the sun’s rays turning what he knew were pale green orbs into a somber ochre. Then she winked one of them at him, and the somberness was gone. “They’re real.” Gabrielle said. “I honestly couldn’t make up some of the stuff I’ve lived through.”
“I know.” Simon responded. “I cant wait for the next one.”
Xena moved quickly up through the woods along the faint game paths until she crossed her original track and took a right hand heading up past the dell. She ignored the sudden flutter of bird wings and headed up through newly sprouting trees with Ares at her heels.
“Yeah.” Xena jumped over a fallen log. “One of those days, boy.”
At least the kids were all safe. The sounds she’d heard no longer threatened her family and she had a reasonable chance at some fighting ahead of her and both of those things made her happy.
Xena came up over a small granite rise and now could hear the sound of battle in the distance, the thunder of boots on the ground that had caught her attention before. She slowed a little as she climbed up the steep slope ahead of her and paused to grab Ares by his scruff and haul him up with her.
With one hand she caught hold of a root and swung them both up and over the edge of the ridge, keeping her head down just in case there were arrows flying. Through the trees she could see moving bodies and she got to her feet as the ring of steel against steel sounded.
She let out a yell, and then she bolted towards the fight, acknowledging the prickle of anticipation that lifted the hair on her forearms as she drew her sword. That never had changed, and as she emerged from the trees and saw six men facing off against Cait, she permitted a soft chuckle to emerge from her throat. “Ya bastards!”
The men turned, at least three of them did, the other three busy trying to get past Cait’s guard as she defended her place with her back against a tall, bare tree.
All of them outreached her but Cait had her sword in one hand, and her long dagger in the other, and she could both attack and parry with growing skill, having spent some time now with Xena as her tutor.
So the men facing off against her found their blows diverted and several already had knicks on their hands from that dagger moving in quicksilver darts.
Ares raced past Xena and launched himself into the air, his jaws clamping onto the arm of the closest man to them, the weight of his large body bowling him over and landing him on his ass on the ground as growls emitted from his throat.
Xena took the second, who came at her with a long, curved sword. All of them were dressed in crude leather armor with patches of metal and she didn’t expect much resistance as she closed in with them, determining in a breath their relative skill.
Or lack thereof.
She backhanded the curved sword as it came at her, it’s darker metal clashing against her finely hammered steel with a screech before the man’s arm was flung backwards violently and he let out a surprised cough as she kept on coming right up to him.
“Hello Xena.” Cait called out. “Glad you didn’t miss the fun.”
“Never.” Xena grabbed the man she was fighting by the front of his leather overlay and yanking him forward to smash her forehead against his with a harsh crack. Then she kicked the scimitar out of his hand and shoved him past her, sending him rolling down the slope and over the edge as he yelled in alarm, arms flailing.
The second man was bleeding out on the ground, Ares jaws clamped around his throat, the wolf shaking his head vigorously as a faint spray of blood emerged, ignoring the clutching fingers grasping at his fur.
The third came at her with a dagger. Xena didn’t waste any time, just grabbing his wrist with her long fingers and squeezing hard as one of Cait’s attackers turned his back on her and came at this new threat instead.
She twisted her first opponents arm behind him as he bent over and lazily kicked the oncoming second in the head, sending him tumbling backwards, to land on the ground hard.
“Stop or I’ll shoot you!”
“Go ahead.” Xena sheathed her sword and sent her original opponent flying with an elbow to the jaw as she faced the figure standing just past Cait with a crossbow cocked. “C’mon.” She raised both hands with a cocky come hither gesture but never got a chance to demonstrate her arrow catching skills as Cait pulled a dagger from her boot and sent it into the man’s throat before he could trigger the mechanism.
The last man hesitated then he dropped his weapons and held his hands up. “Okay.” He said. “I don’t know what the Hades we walked into here, but I give up.” He watched his companion slump to the ground, fingers scrabbling at the blade buried up to its hilt as his jugular pumped out his life. “Can’t you… “
“No.” Xena dusted her hands off. “I can’t.”
“Scum.” Cait opined. “You’re trespassing on Amazon land.” She looked over at Xena. “Her majesty sent me up here to find out what’s going on.”
“Figures.” Xena examined the bodies on the ground, then she went over and looked down the slope, not surprised to find the man who had fallen down it gone. She turned and came back, regarding the two dead bodies with a grimace. “What a mess.” She glanced up at the one vertical miscreant left. ‘What are you doing here?”
He slowly lowered his hands. “No one told us we were trespassing. We were just up here helping some friends prospect.” He looked at the two bodies. “We were just minding our own business when this woman attacked us.” He pointed at Cait.
“Well, she’s right. You’re trespassing.” Xena said. “This whole mountain’s off limits.”
“Says who? How can you block off a whole mountain? Especially one that has gold in it?” The man asked.
“Says me.” Xena said. “And as you can see, I can enforce what I say.” She walked up the slope to face him, and he took a step back when she reached his level and he realized she overtopped him by half a head. “How did you get up here?”
He made a little grimace. “Like I said, some friends led us up here, and matter of fact they were invited.” He said. “My name’s Jabsen. I came for the market, and we heard from everyone there that this place was full of things worth prospecting for.” He cautiously took another step back. “People came and said it was there for the taking.”
“What people?” Xena asked.
“Just some people. Some friends we met in the bar. Said they spoke to those women.” Jabsen said. “I’m telling you, they brought all us up here.” He insisted. “Like she’s dressed? They were. They said we were welcome to prospect.”
Xena looked at Cait, who looked both startled and bewildered. “Amazons told you to come up here?”
“That’s what my friends said.” Jabsen stated. “So I don’t know why this one was attacking us. Didn’t even give us a chance to explain.” He looked over at Cait. “And then you showed up.”
“And then I showed up.” Xena sighed. “And I hit first and ask questions later.”
“That’s right.” He agreed. “And you have wild animals.” He eyed Ares, who was licking his chops free of blood. “They don’t ask questions first either I guess.”
The man she’d knocked out with her elbow was now groaning, holding his head and rolling into semi consciousness on the ground. The man she’d kicked against the tree was sitting with his eyes closed, one hand on the side of his face.
Xena put her hands on her hips. “Take your buddies there and get out of here.” She said. “Tell everyone you talk to, this land is off limits. I don’t care how many Amazons you talk to.”
“I thought you said it was their land?” He countered. “They let us up here.”
“Their Queen doesn’t agree.” Xena said. “So I’ll let her deal with whoever said that, but the rest of you get out of here now.”
“Sure.” Jabsen went over and grabbed hold of their sleeves and started to yank them upright. “C’mon lets get out of here before they kill us too.”
The men crawled and stumbled to their feet, hunching their shoulders as they went past the two women and got onto the hunting path nearby, warily watching them before they disappeared into the leaves.
Cait went over and retrieved her dagger from the dead man’s throat, wiping it clean on his leggings before she returned it to it’s sheath. “What on earth is going on here?” She asked. “Xena, no Amazons I know would bring this lot up here. That’s crazy.”
Xena sat down on one of the nearby boulders, extending her long legs out and crossing them at the ankles. “Its crazy. But one thing I’ve learned in my life, Cait, is that dinars make people crazy.” She exhaled. “What were these guys doing when you found them?”
Cait came over and sat down next to her. “Well, I was looking for you.” She said. “Because..”
“Because Gabrielle asked you to.” Xena smiled briefly.
“She was wondering what the children were up to.” Cait explained. “I don’t think she was really worried about you.”
“Oh, you’d be surprised.” Xena’s eyes twinkled briefly in the dappled sunlight. “The kids are all back at the village. They’re fine.”
“That’s grand.” Cait smiled as well. “Anyway, I was heading for the back way up to your place, as I sorted out that’s where the children were probably playing. I heard this lot laughing and came over to see what they were doing.”
“I chased the kids down to that cave we were in the other night.” Xena said. “Two of the new juniors were in there, being harassed by two more of these jokers.”
Xena regarded the slope with briefly pensive eyes. “There was a bag in the cave.” She said. “Had two dead babies in it.”
Cait’s pale eyes opened wide in shock, and her jaw dropped a little bit. “Excuse me?”
“Yeah.” Her mentor said. “I hid them outside. I didn’t want the kids to see them.” She rested her elbows on her knees. “The juniors were in a canoe. It had blood all over it.” She said. “Bag had blood all over it.”
“Xena.” Cait looked and sounded aghast.
“I want to go talk to those girls.” Xena got up. “They didn’t really want to talk to me.” She added after a brief pause. “I think they were scared.” She dusted her hands off.
“Of you?” Cait joined her as they walked through the trees, angling down towards the path. “But you rescued them.”
Xena considered the question as they emerged from the forest and dropped onto the path, Ares trotting along at their heels. “No.” She finally said. “Not afraid of me, afraid of what I was gonna ask them. “
“About the bag.”
They entered the village through the open gates, exchanging brief waves with the watch. As they crossed the main square they were spotted, and a handful of Amazons started towards them, all armed, with Pony in the lead.
“That’s nothing good.” Xena said.
Gabrielle regarded the crowd, waiting for a last set of musicians to finish playing their dancing tune before she went on with her next story. It was almost dusk, and the air had grown cool, it’s touch causing her a bit of discomfort as she leaned casually against the stage.
Toris came over and leaned next to her. “Hey.”
“Hey.” She greeted her brother in law. “Something funky’s going on.”
Gabrielle turned her head to regard him. “Like what?”
“Like I don’t know what, but it’s making my neck hair hurt.” Toris replied. “I just got a bad feeling, and y’know…”
“And I know your sister gets them too.” Gabrielle acknowledged. “Not good to ignore them.”
She carefully scanned the area around them, letting her eyes linger over the groups of people all round, some talking, some just listening, and a few staring. She marked the Ithacans, who were seated around a table with the remaining people from the temple, mostly with their backs turned to her.
Hm. “Be right back.” Gabrielle pushed off from the stage and headed in the direction of the table, her head turning slightly fom side to side as she eased through the crowd.
She was noticed. Heads turned, eyes moved in her direction. At the fringes of the crowd she spotted Redder, casually getting up from the short backless chair he’d been sitting on and while not following her, keeping her in his view.
Just as Cait would have been doing, actually, if the young Amazon who was her chief personal guard had been there rather than up the mountain on her errand.
Charming, a little, that they took such care of her even when she felt it not really necessary. Cait had once told her that she knew quite well how skilled her queen was at defending herself but really if they could save her any bit of trouble she wanted to.
As she drew near the table one of the Ithacans spotted her and held a hand up, and they turned as she arrived, watching her warily.
There was an empty backless stool between two of them and she took it, sitting down and resting her elbows on the table. “Hi.”
Was not, apparently, what they had been expecting. Gabrielle watched them all look briefly at each other, then defer to the de facto temple leader. He cleared his throat. “What do you want?”
The straightforwardness appealed to her. “I’d like to try and clear up some of the misunderstandings we might have gotten between us.” She replied. “Not about the death of your leader.” She added hastily as he started to react. “I get that is going to take some time.”
He re settled his body and frowned.
The Ithacans stepped up. “Are you here to apologize?” One ventured.
Gabrielle shook her head. “No.” She said. “I’ve learned that doesn’t get you much unless you mean it, and far as I know we haven’t done anything I need to apologize for.” She folded her hands. “Why did you come here?” She looked around at the faces. “Really?”
“What’s she doing?” Nala whispered to Paladia. They were sitting on the edge of the market, near the Amazons booth.
“Talking.” Paladia said, briefly. “Same thing she always does.”
“Those guys don’t want to talk to her.” Nala observed. “They think Xena killed their poobah.”
“Doesn’t matter.” The tall ex renegade said. “Nothing stops that woman.”
They watched Gabrielle lean forward, her powerful shoulders shifting as she addressed the men. Their faces showed various levels of irritation and one of them half stood, pointing a finger at the seated Amazon queen.
“Artemis’s left tit those men are stupid.” Nala said. “Do they not, like for a second realize they’re sitting in the middle of a gods be damned army?”
At that moment, Gabrielle stood, and they saw her body shift as she drew breath. “Sit down!” She let out a stern yell, bringing militia heads around sharply as several started in her direction. She put her hands firmly on her hips and glared at the man across the table.
“Nitwits.” Paladia got up and she and Nala headed towards the table.
“We will not be spoken to like that by a woman.” The man said. “Sit down yourself and be civil.”
Gabrielle held a hand up, then whistled sharply in reinforcement as moving bodies all around them lurched into stillness. Then she put hands on the table and leaned forward. “C’mon guys.” She said, in a more conversational tone. “You’re missing the point here. This isn’t Athens.” She paused. “And even if it was, we ran the place the last time we were there anyway.”
The Ithacan standing looked at her. “We came here to honor the gods.” He said. “And now we think.. “He looked around at the table and the other men nodded in agreement. “We think you put up those shrines to draw in rubes and take them.”
“Take them for what?” Gabrielle asked, with a puzzled frown. “What are we supposed to be getting out of this?”
“Who’s to say where the offerings go?” One of the oracle’s people said. “Many fine things could be laid on those altars. Why else then would you make them?”
Gabrielle waited, until a small silence had fallen for just long enough to be uncomfortable and start everyone fidgeting. “We put the shrines up for ourselves.” She said. “Worshipping the gods had fallen out of fashion and we decided to put up two altars for the two gods we knew best.”
The oracle’s men snorted a little. “Didn’t see any gold there before ours.” The new leader said. “So what honor was paid by those here?”
She extended her hand, with the thin line of the cut still visible. “Our offering to Ares was our blood.” She glanced aside as one of the militia came to her shoulder and extended his hand past her, likewise marked. “What use does he have for anything else?”
“And for the lady.” Bennu came up behind them. “We offered the fruit of our bodies.” He hooked his thumbs into his belt, the long dagger on his left hand side resting against his wrist. “Was for us, not any of you.”
Paladia snorted a little under her breath. “Yeah, I figure the made them cause Xena won’t put up with them leaving crap at her doorstep.”
Nala hastily covered her mouth.
Redder had come to a halt just a body length from Gabrielle. “Tell em that story, little hawk.” He suggested. “Tell em that one, with the creature and all that, in the winter. We all were there. We saw it.”
They all had been, and Gabrielle wondered, now, how much of her story they remembered or would remember once she’d told it. “Hm. Not a bad idea.” She said, having intended on telling the tale anyhow. “Maybe that will explain us a little.”
“Whole library of Athens couldn’t explain most things round here.” Paladia muttered, relaxing as she figured they weren’t going to end up in a scrap yet. “And those dipshits aren’t going to believe her anyway.”
“Maybe the god’s’ll show up.” Nala settled down on one of the tables. “That’ll get the party really started.”
“Give that guy a real fit.”