It was a crisp and sunny fall day, a cold breeze coming up the valley and ruffling the river water coursing along the hard packed pathway alongside it, scattering a flock of colorful ducks that launched themselves into the air.
Trees on either side of the river were turning burnished colors, reds and oranges and yellows taking over the green and fields between them showed the rough stubble of the harvest, putting a scent of cut crops into the air.
Along the path two horses trotted, each bearing a rider and neatly packed baggage, well-groomed animals moving easily along the empty road, in and out of the spears of late afternoon sunlight coming through the rustling leaves of the trees.
“What do you think, Xena?” Gabrielle asked. “Portos by sundown?”
“Assuming nothing interrupts us, sure.” Xena responded, looking up from fixing a bit of tack.
“Like unexpected raiders on the road or rain? It’s been quiet.”
Xena glanced around, a hint of a smile appearing. “Wild animals, earthquakes, sudden flood of the river, attack of spiders.. who’s to say?” She said, dryly. “Try not to invoke the fates by asking, woudlja?”
Gabrielle chuckled. “I’ll save my premonitions of disaster for when we reach the Amazon conclave, thanks.”
“Or for when we get back home and find out what our children have done in our absence.”
“Or that.” Gabrielle laughed outright. “Hopefully everyone will forgive us, first for taking off without an escort and second for not taking our kids with us.”
“Eh.” Xena twitched her cloak straighter. “It’ll be a short trip.” She glanced up at the sky. “Two months, tops.”
“Much shorter than if we’d taken a bunch of people with us.” Gabrielle concluded. “And anyway, do I really want to bring more opinions to an Amazon conclave than ours?” She paused and grimaced. “That sounds so rude.”
“Truth.” Xena glanced at her, pale blue eyes twinkling.
Gabrielle considered that in silence for a while as they moved along. “Anyway, we should see what this conclave is all about in the first place.” She said. “Last time we were asked to join in a conference with a bigger group of Amazon nations didn’t end well.”
“Truth.” Xena repeated. “And if there’s only two of us we can pick up and leave like that.” She snapped the fingers of her right hand. “What is it that invite said? We should gather and make treat to improve the Amazon nations? Sounds like a guaranteed crap show to me.”
“Well, maybe they’ll have a market.” Gabrielle said. “At least we can bring Dori and Kari back a toy.”
Xena chortled under her breath.
“It’s almost her birthday.”
“We woke up last week with that pony in her bedroom.” Xena said. “I’m gonna get her a manure shovel.”
“Hope those soldiers of yours finish that stable up there before we get back.”
Xena stretched in her saddle, releasing her boots from her stirrups, and extending them out past the steadily moving shoulders of her horse. “Well, we’ve been gone two weeks now. They should at least have all the lumber pulled.” She patted the dappled gray neck. “And we’ve got a chance to get these two some saddle time.”
Gabrielle regarded the spotted roan and off-white coat of her own, smaller animal. “She’s easier on my back, that’s for sure.”
They rode on as the path turned in a wide curve away from the river, following a small tributary creek as it burbled and splashed alongside them, the water coming downhill from the pass they were about to enter. Past that were hills that slowly rose up on either side, and towards the horizon, a flash of wooden stockade at the edge of view part of the way up the second hill.
Portos was a medium sized town, and they arrived at the gates just as the sun was setting, the dusky air blooming with newly lit torches and the smell of something being cooked further inside.
There was a guard at the gates and they pulled up and stopped as two of the guards came out to meet them, dressed in the sturdy cloth and hardened leather of a local militia. “Evening travelers.” The nearer one said, in a mild voice. “Where you bound?”
A reasonable question. “We’re headed through to the Ionian plateau.” Gabrielle answered. “Hoping for a meal and a bed here, and to you and all a good harvest.” She held her reins in one hand and rested the other casually on her thigh, a simple drop motion away from the battered wooden staff lashed along the horse’s side.
Xena had kicked her boots free of her stirrups and was sitting relaxed in her saddle, hands resting on the saddlebow, aware of the setting sunlight catching the hilt of her sword in its sheath visible over her shoulder. The dappled gray horse was looking past the gate with interest, no doubt smelling other horses and possible apple treats inside.
“Welcome.” The guard said readily. “Always glad to see some travelers coming through. Betta’s inn is up the road, first turn, second path. She has a few rooms left available.” He moved aside and the second guard did as well, both of them holding iron bound staves with long work knives strapped to their sides. “And a good harvest it’s been, thank ya.”
“For us as well.” Gabrielle smiled at him. She waited for Xena to move forward and her mount followed the gray without prompting, and they entered the sturdy gates that extended along either side of the town to fill a gap in the hill walls.
Xena was looking around casually. The ground on the inner side of the wall had been cleared and there were, clearly visible to her knowledgeable eye, preparations for defense of it, but those preparations were tidily tucked away and the gates behind them remained propped open. “No recent trouble.” She commented. “Haven’t been here for a couple years.”
“Are those two statements connected?” Gabrielle gave her a sideways look.
Xena snorted, and a moment later, the gray horse did likewise. “Didn’t ask you for a comment, Tanto.” They started riding through the outskirts of the town, small cabins and gardens on either side of the main path, tucked into an area of thick, tall trees.
There was a waft of wood smoke drifting through the trees, now almost dark and they could hear patches of speech and homely noises as they moved through on the path, their horses making low, muffled thunks as they walked along the packed earth.
“Y’know something, Xena?” Gabrielle mused, as they took the path indicated and approached the inn, a single story building tucked into a fold in the hill with arms spreading out to either side.
“I’m about to.”
“It’s kind of nice to just travel around and not have anything happen.”
Xena turned her head and gave her a stare. “Did you really just say that?” She asked, in an outraged tone.
Gabrielle moved her horse a bit closer and patted Xena on the knee. “I’m not cursing us, honey. Relax.”
“If the innkeeper’s a gorgon I’m going to spank your ass.”
The innkeeper was not a gorgon. She was a middle-aged woman with silver shot chestnut hair, and apple pink cheeks who greeted them on entry with a pleasant smile. “Good day, travelers.” She spread her hands out on the wooden desk she was standing behind. “How can we serve?”
Gabrielle moved aside the edge of her lined, weatherproof cloak and lifted a small pouch from her belt. “We’d like a room for the night, and dinner if we can get it.” She said. “We’ve stabled two horses.” She set the pouch down on the desk, a beautifully worked leather sack with a beaded pattern on the cover.
The innkeeper had a shrewd eye, and she took in the quality of the kit, and that of the silent, tall figure behind her. “No need to talk coin until you leave us, traveler.” She said, in a cheerful tone. “It’s two dinar for the room and a quarter for the meal, another quarter if you take breakfast with us.”
“Sounds good.” Gabrielle returned the courtesy and refrained from bargaining, putting her coin pouch away with a smile.
They followed the innkeeper down the left-hand side hall, a somewhat winding passage that obviously followed the curve of the hillside itself. There were candles fastened to the wall and it was lit with a golden light, the floors neatly swept and the ceiling tall enough so that Xena had no need to duck her head.
The room itself was reasonably sized, had a decent looking bed inside with the clean smell of washed linen lingering around it, and a sturdy glazed glass window on the far side that let in the reflected torchlight from outside. “Supper’s up in the hall.” Betta concluded, after letting them inside. “There’s water with a pump end of the passage here.”
Then she closed the door and left, without any further chatter.
Xena dropped the saddlebags she’d been carrying on her shoulder onto the bed. “Nice.” She stood in the middle of the room and looked around, hands planted on her hips. “After all the camping.” She unfastened her cloak and lifted it off her shoulders, turning to hang it on one of the horseshoe nails hammered into the wall.
Underneath she was wearing a set of winter leather armor over a knit, long sleeved tunic, and woolen leggings tucked into her boots.
“Yeah, it was kinda frosty this morning.” Gabrielle agreed, taking off her own cloak. She went and stood her staff into a corner and ruffled her hair. “Shall we go see what the fare is?”
“Rabbit stew.” Xena said briefly. “But it’ll probably be warm at least and they’ve got beer.” She opened the door and gestured for Gabrielle to precede her. “And I can use a change from fish.”
They went through the halls and past the greeting desk, which was empty, through the doorway at the right of the desk where the sounds of a meal service could clearly be heard.
The gathering hall was surprisingly large, and Xena glanced up as they entered, finding that it had been built into a cavern whose roof arched high overhead. That reflected the noise of the other patrons and servers, the clank of mugs and rattle of platters but it also sucked the smoke from the cookfire at the far end out a vent going outside.
So the air inside was clear, and as they went to a small table near one wall they only attracted brief glances and one or two double takes at the firelight glinting off the hilt of Xena’s sword.
The table was one of the furthest from the kitchen, and cool, and as Xena rested her shoulder blades against the wall she could feel the chill through her leathers. It wasn’t uncomfortable though and she leaned back and rested her elbow on the table, casually studying the inside of the room.
It was decently full, most of the patrons at small tables like theirs, but there were also several larger groups on an upper level in rough pockets of stone with bigger trestles inside them. There were baskets of bread on the tables and metal mugs, and her nose twitched at the pungent smell of what appeared to be gourd-based beer.
Ah well. She turned her attention to their fellow patrons. Some were locals, she reasoned. Done with their daily work and enjoying a bowl of stew they didn’t have to forage for, small groups of them obviously known to each other, ribald jokes and speech going back and forth.
Some were travelers like they were, sitting in quiet, looking around with mild interest, listening to the chatter. None looked like trouble, no little knots of maybe troublemakers, looking around for possible victims. She extended her boots and crossed them. No loners hiding in the shadows.
“Far enough from home to be unknown.” She remarked to Gabrielle, who was likewise casually looking around the room. “Nice for a change.”
A server came over, a young man, with straight brown hair pulled into a tail at the nape of his neck and a leather apron on over his tunic. “Greetings travelers.” He put a short plank down with rough cuts of bread on it, and a small dish of salt. “Will you have our harvest beer?”
“Sure.” Gabrielle agreed promptly. “We’ll have whatever you got.”
That made the server grin. He touched his forehead in a brief gesture and turned, heading back across the room towards the kitchen area where four workers were busy.
The hall was strictly an eating place, Gabrielle noted. There was no cleared area for dancing, or gathering, and no place for a musician to stand, playing for his dinner. That surprised her a little, for a town of that size, but she reasoned they might have another location, or they might be some place that preferred their entertainment outdoors.
But just as well. No pressure for her to do anything but have dinner, and after the long travel day, she was content with that.
They were heading in a direction that wasn’t very familiar to them, and Gabrielle found that old sensation of anticipation at seeing some new places. It felt good. She looked across the table and watched Xena watching the room, the faintest of smiles on her lips. “Having fun?”
Xena looked at her, and her eyes twinkled. “Are you?”
Gabrielle nodded. “I am.”
“Me too.” Xena looked up as the server reappeared with a tray, neatly balancing two bowls and two mugs, and adroitly putting them down on the table. “Thanks.”
“Anything else, just wave me down.” The boy cheerfully told her, before whisking away to another table nearby.
Xena picked up the mug and sniffed it cautiously, then took a sip, mouthing the beverage around in her mouth for a long moment before swallowing.
“And?” Gabrielle had been watching her.
“Not bad.” Xena stuck the tip of her tongue out into the mug. “I think there’s cinnamon in it.”
Thus reassured, Gabrielle took a sip. “That isn’t bad.” She acknowledged. “They put enough spice in you don’t realize it’s rotting vegetables.”
Xena grimaced slightly then raised her mug.
Gabrielle had the small utility table pulled over near the bed, a freshly bound set of cut parchment on the table while she sat on the side of the bed writing studiously on a page. There were already several turned over and covered in writing and she regarded the surface with satisfaction as she completed the line she was on.
A soft knock came at the door. Gabrielle put her quill down and got up, rubbing a bit of ink off her fingers as she glanced at the staff in the corner, before she went over and prepared to open it, bracing one knee behind the wooden panel before she turned the latch.
No real reason to suspect anything nefarious, but she was more than experienced now at traveling to know you never knew. “Hi.” She eased the door open and looked out, to find the innkeeper there, with a small wooden tray in her hands.
“Evening to you, traveler.” Betta said. “Custom of the house is we bring a nightcap around to our guests. Would you and your friend like one?”
The tray had a number of small wooden mugs on it. Gabrielle opened the door more fully as the scent of mulled fruit cider wafted in. “Absolutely.” She reached out and took hold of two of the mugs, lifting them off the tray. “That’s really nice of you.”
Betta smiled, dimples appearing in both cheeks. “We like to treat our travelers well.” She said. “We’re a bit off the beaten track here, it’s always good to have folks say good things about your inn.”
Gabrielle turned and set the cups down on the shelf near the door. “Totally agree. My mother in law’s an innkeeper.” She said. “And she always wants to keep her reputation up.”
Betta’s eyes lit up. “Is she now? Where are you folks from? Is it nearby? I don’t think I’ve seen you before.”
“We’re from Amphipolis.” Gabrielle folded her arms over her chest and leaned her shoulder against the doorjamb. “It’s in the highlands near Thrace.” She watched the woman’s face with a casual expression, watching for any reaction.
With Amphipolis you could never tell. It was a small place, for its history, and considered a backwater but depending on how many travelers came through and where they were coming from stories could travel.
“My goodness you are far from home.” Betta said comfortably. “I’ve never been east of the river, myself.” She said, in a regretful tone. “My family’s been innkeepers here five generations now, and my sons will be the sixth.”
There was a proud ring to her tone, of tradition and place, and Gabrielle understood it. “Is one of them the brown haired young man who was serving dinner?” She smiled with a twinkle in her eyes as she saw the other woman’s light up. “He did a great job.”
“He’s learning.” Betta said, with a rueful smile. “He’s my youngest. A good boy.” She lifted the tray a little. “Let me get on my way, it’s been lovely speaking with you…” Here she paused with a slight question in the tone.
“That’s a lovely name.” The woman said cheerfully. “A good night to you then, Gabrielle, and to your friend.” She whisked herself off down the hall, heading to the next room.
With a slight chuckle, Gabrielle closed the door. She picked up the cups, carrying one over to where the small brazier was, emitting a bit of heat into the room. Setting one of the cups down near it to keep warm, she took the other back to her table and sat back down.
The innkeeper was a nice sort. She took a sip of the cider, which turned out to be pear. Nice, though, Gabrielle thought, a bit lacking in curiosity given she hadn’t continued to ask the obvious following questions most would have.
Just as well. Poking further would have had her educating the woman on things that were probably best left unsaid if the name of her hometown had not stirred any familiarity, and the woman hadn’t even asked where Xena was.
Gabrielle finished the last line in her diary, and nibbled on the end of her quill, smiling faintly at the light taste of mint on her tongue. “Not that I would have told her.”
Xena was out in the chill of the evening, prowling around the town with the intent of ending up at the stables to say good night to the horses.
The town was laid out in a meandering pattern, fitting itself around the slopes and furrows of the hill it was built into and she spent a little while walking through the lanes full of small cottages with their sheltered gardens, most of them bedded down already for winter.
She could smell the cold of the air, and the pungent spruce around them, and the breeze ruffled her dark hair. She paused in an area of shadow, out of the glare of the torches to breath in, and listen.
The sounds and sights and smells spurred no concern. Xena hadn’t really expected them to. She twitched her cloak straight and headed for the stables, registering the sound nearby of chickens rustling and the further off lowing of a cow.
There were some other footsteps in the dark, but they were nearer to the inn. Xena found herself alone on the uneven path leading to the stable and the torches petered out leaving her in darkness. She paused as she left the last glimmer and waited a moment for her eyes to adjust, then she continued.
The stable was a low roofed, narrow building on the far side of the inn, and the door was latched but unlocked. Xena opened it and moved inside, aware at once of the presence of several animals and the rustle of them in motion.
There was one line of rough, somewhat narrow stalls and she walked along it until she reached the last two, which held Tanto and Spot, who were already standing with their heads emerging from the rope barrier having recognized her presence.
“Hey kids.” Xena peered into the spaces, approving of the light, but sufficient layer of grass and the dented, metal bucket of water hanging on a nail in each stall.
The two horses had been rubbed down, and their tack was slung over the front of the partition. Xena spent a few minutes giving them scritches and just as she fluffed Tanto’s forelock she paused, hearing the soft creaking of the door open and feeling the puff of cold air against her cheek.
The door closed and she was aware of a presence in the darkness with her. But she kept up her handling of the horse, watching his ears twitch and his head turn towards the door.
Then there was the sound of a striker, and the flare of sparks, and a candle lit near the door. The interior of the stable filled with a sedate golden light and the smell of melting tallow.
Xena turned calmly, seeing the young man who had served them standing there, eyes wide, holding the candle in a sconce. “Hi.”
“Oh!” The boy said. “It’s you, traveler. I heard the door so..” He took a step towards her. “I sleep in the bunkroom on the other side of the wall, and I wanted to make sure everything was okay.”
“No problem.” Xena remarked. “Just saying goodnight to the kids.” She indicated the horses. “They’re youngsters. Not really used to traveling.”
Encouraged, the boy came forward more confidently, holding the sconce with almost exaggerated care. “They are so beautiful.” He said. “I’ve never seen any like that.” He extended one hand to Spot’s nose, letting her sniff it. “Hey there.”
“You like horses.” Xena observed. “Me too. What’s your name?”
“Toby.” He answered promptly. “I love horses.” He agreed. “We only got the one, old Horace over there. He pulls the supply wagon.” He looked over his shoulder at a shaggy chestnut head who was now looking their way, with wise old eyes. “He doesn’t like anyone.”
Xena gave Tanto a pat, then she circled the kid and went over to the other stall to inspect it’s resident.
“Careful, he bites.” Toby was content to stay where he was, stroking Spot’s nose.
“So do I.” Xena came face to face with the big old cart horse, who stopped chewing the hay in his mouth and spit it out onto her boots. “Ah, a gift.” She got closer. “Hey there big boy.”
The horse poked his nose into Xena’s face and opened his teeth, then unexpectedly swiped his tongue across her eyes, making her chuckle. Then he opened his nostrils and breathed at her, leaving specks of hay all over her skin. She patted him on the cheek in response, then gave him a little scritch behind his ear.
“He likes you.” Toby observed. “Wish he liked me.”
“Most horses do like me.” Xena stepped back and wiped the rest of the sodden hay off her face. “Probably because they know I like them.” She slid the cloak into place over her shoulders, having left her sword behind in the inn. “Getting ready for winter?”
“Yeah.” He sighed. “I hate winter. There’s nothin to do, and we don’t get much business.” He moved away from the stalls and started for the door. “Trying to learn how to make baskets for ma. I’m not much good though.”
Xena went to the door and pushed it open, letting in a cold breeze. “Try making Horace like you.” She suggested. “Talk to him. Give him treats.”
Toby blew out the candle and carefully put the sconce in a secure holder. “Okay.” He edged out past her into the path. “I think he’ll probably just bite me.”
“They’re grass chewing teeth.” Xena shut the door and nudged him forward. “Probably won’t take a finger off. Give it a try. If you can make one horse like you, maybe more of them will too.”
He looked doubtfully at her, squinting in the shadows. Xena lifted both hands and wiggled all her fingers at him, then she walked past him and headed back to the inn, chuckling softly under her breath.
The morning dawned crisp and a touch foggy, the mist coming up from the river invading the town and sending ghostly tendrils through the lanes and buildings.
Xena idly watched the fog retreat from her boots as she headed for the stables, leaving Gabrielle to settle their tab with the innkeeper. Her presence there would stifle the casual morning chatter and allow Gabrielle to pick up the little informational tidbits that usually meant nothing, but occasionally did.
The early morning sounds of the town were all around her, and her boots made only gentle thuds against the ground as she walked through the tall trees, her cloak draped neatly over her armor.
Off to her left, a cow lowed, the sound of its neck bell clanking softly as it was milked. She could hear the streams hitting the bucket, no different than if she had been walking through Amphipolis at dawn, and she nodded her head a little in recognition of that.
This town was at peace. They were just living their lives, there was no signs of recent raider trouble, though it was clear they were ready for it and as she passed through the small cottages she could see evidence of a good harvest on either side, with crates of vegetables waiting to be processed and stored in pottery jars piled up outside sheds at the back of the yards.
Nice. She smiled as she walked through a crossroads, and then paused, as she saw a group of youngsters walking along the path crosswise, all heading for the same destination.
For no apparent reason it peaked her curiosity and she waited for them to disappear into the trees and then she altered her course and followed them, stepping off the path onto the leaf covered ground of a lighter trek just visible.
Now her boots made no sound, her knees flexing a little as she placed her steps consciously, drawing her cloak around her more snugly to avoid brushing against the leaf shed branches and causing them to crack.
The figures in front of her walked in silence, but not quiet, their boots crunching on the dead leaves underfoot and hands raising up to casually push aside limbs as they continued deeper into the trees, nothing in their motions indicating stealth, ignorant of the dark shadow gliding along behind them.
One had a chicken under his arm, its head covered in a small piece of sacking. That was what had caught Xena’s eye, and as she followed them a brief gust of a breeze brought to her the distinct scent of dusky herbs and around the edges of that, old blood.
She smiled briefly and continued, her suspicions confirmed when they emerged into a small glade in the forest that held several wooden contraptions fastened into the trees.
They were crudely built, but sturdy, altars to several of the gods with offerings draped around them, knit clothes, and old flowers, the end of the harvest, trinkets, and the one on the far end, carcasses smelling of death and blood.
Above each, a beautifully carved wooden sigil identifying the god in question. She saw one for Athena, and Demeter, piled with recently shorn bounty from the fields, one, taller than the rest devoted to Zeus and Hera, that one had the most trinkets and sparkling stones – and then on the end of course to Ares.
The youngsters had scattered, three of them bringing sacks of grain over to put them reverently into the wooden platform devoted to Demeter, and two others brought carved representations of farm animals and laid them in front of Athena’s.
The lad with the chicken marched over to the dark and bloodstained shelf. Xena pondered briefly then she shrugged and took a step forward into the clearing. “What’s going on here?”
All the youngsters whirled and the one on the end dropped the chicken and scrambled to grab for a knife at his belt. The chicken, legs tied, landed with an indignant squawk at his feet.
Xena stayed where she was, her thumbs tucked into the belt she was wearing, watching them. “Well?”
“Oh.” Chicken boy straightened. “It’s you, traveler.”
It was their server, and her companion in the barn the night before. “Morning.” Xena replied. “Whatcha doing?”
Toby relaxed and stopped trying to get his belt knife untangled. “It’s okay.” He said to his companions. “This lady stayed at our inn last night.” He looked back over at Xena. “We are performing our morning devotions to the gods, traveler. Would you like to join us?”
Taking a breath to laugh, Xena paused and checked herself, aware of the intent, curious stares. “Sure.” She answered instead. “Let’s see what I got here.” She investigated her belt pouch, sorting the contents.
The kids relaxed and went back to their devotions, and Toby picked up the chicken, tucking it back under his arm.
Xena removed a wooden object and crossed over to Athena’s altar and with a serious expression, she put down a small, carved horse onto the leaf littered surface. “Mighty Athena, send good horses to these people, so they may be borne into battle on your behalf.” She then stopped speaking before the irony overwhelmed her ability to maintain composure.
The girl who had been putting down trinkets looked delighted and overwhelmed, and Toby let out a happy gasp.
Xena moved on to the next table. She dug into her pouch again and came out with a handful of corn kernels, roasted as a travel snack. She poured them onto the dusty, small dish in the altar to Demeter. “This is corn grown in the highlands of Thrace. May Demeter bless this town with plenty to match where it came from.”
“Oh this is wonderful.” The girl behind Xena said. “Thank you so much traveler!”
Now Xena dusted her hands off and walked over to where Toby was standing. “What are you going to do with that?” She pointed at the chicken.
“Kill it and leave it as an offering to Ares.” Toby answered readily. “To honor his presence in our lives.”
The youngsters had now gathered around Xena, and were watching her, bright eyed.
Xena scratched the bridge of her nose. “I’m not sure he likes chickens.”
In the back of her awareness, she could almost hear the laugh, and she felt the faint prickle across her shoulder blades of presence.
“Do you think a pig would be better?” Toby asked, in a serious tone. “I told papa it’s harvest time. We should be more generous.”
The absurdity almost got her. Xena twitched all over and then scrubbed her face with one hand and cleared her throat. “Ares is the God of War.” She intoned, taking a breath. “The blood he wants is yours.”
The kids all froze and stared at her, eyes flicking to the sword visible poking out from under her cloak.
Xena reached over and untied the string around it’s legs and then pulled the bag over the chicken’s head, and it reacted about as she thought it might, violently starting to peck at Toby’s arm. “Let that thing go.”
Toby released the bird, and it landed with a flutter of its wings, then it chased off into the trees.
“C’mere.” Xena walked over to the altar. It’s platform was darkened with blood and animal carcass remains and it stank of it. She reached down and picked up a branch with some leaves still on it, and swept it over the surface, blocking out the inanity of the action and continuing until it was clear of old bits of bone and skin. “I’m sure the owls appreciate it, but he doesn’t.”
Toby had edged closer now. “You going to kill one of us instead?”
Xena looked at him. “No.” She drew out her dagger and without preamble made a cut in the palm of her left hand. Then she lifted her arm up and squeezed her fingers into a fist, and blood gushed out, dribbling over the altar. She sounded the words your turn in her head, and as the drops touched the surface, it obligingly flared blue, turning into a blaze of cold fire as it spread out.
Toby inhaled in shock, and the rest of the kids at his back gasped in unison.
The blue flame overtook the entire platform, flared up to outline Xena in its color, then it reduced and was reabsorbed into the altar, leaving behind a completely clean surface.
Nice. Xena thought. “There.” She stepped back and removed a cloth from her belt pouch, cleaning off the blood from the cut. “That’s what he’s looking for.” She looked at them. “Not dead animals.”
“Wow.” Toby breathed. “Will that happen if I do it?” He stared at Xena with wide, round eyes.
“Have you killed anyone yet?” Xena inquired. “No?” She could read the astonishment in his face. “Probably not then.” She winked at him. “But maybe in time.” She wrapped the cloth around her hand and stepped back from the altar, the kids scattering back away from her. “Gotta go. Remember, keep these things clean.” She turned and looked at all them. “And you might want to put one up for Aphrodite.”
“Aprhodite?” The girl asked, hesitantly.
“Yes.” Xena gave her a stern look, then she retreated in a purposeful march, only somewhat imagining the ethereal pats on the head disarranging her hair.
She left them all clustered together whispering and deliberately shut her ears to it, walking back through the woods and returning to her original path.
Gabrielle was already in the stable, laying their gear over the divider from her shoulder. She looked up as the door opened. “There you are.”
“Here I am.” Xena agreed, coming in and entering Tanto’s enclosure. “Had to go do a good deed to start my day.”
“What’d you do to your hand?”
“Long story.” Xena got Tanto’s saddle blanket in place and secured it. “All good inside?”
Gabrielle picked up Spot’s saddle blanket. “Betta had a thousand questions today.” She remarked, as she worked. “Apparently they had two girls from here take off to go join the Amazons and when she heard we were headed for the Ionian plateau she put two and two together and got six.”
“Ah.” Xena lifted Tanto’s saddle into place, while the dappled gray animal regarded her. “She wasn’t asking us to go find them was she?” She gave Gabrielle a sideways look.
“No.” Gabrielle answered, slowly. “More asking, what the deal was with why they went.”
“Ah.” Xena repeated with a completely different intonation.
“Mm. Apparently we don’t look like Amazons, so they thought maybe we had some insight on the subject.” Gabrielle responded in a placid tone.
“As in, why were we going?”
Xena chuckled. “You had as entertaining a morning as I did, hon.”
“Birds and the bees before breakfast.” Gabrielle confirmed. “Glad they didn’t get around to asking about kids.” She finished tightening Spot’s girth. “It’s nice to stay in a bed at night but y’know Xena…”
“Our life is simpler just camping.” Xena took the reins of both horses and started leading them out of the barn. “And you make better rabbit stew.” She could see the fog still drifting into the lanes. “Did you ever get around to spilling our names?”
“No.” Gabrielle reached up to grab the saddle bow and pull herself onboard. “Well, I told her mine last night. Should I have mentioned yours?”
“Nah.” Xena vaulted into place and settled her knees. “Not after I dropped some blood onto an altar to Ares and he lit it on fire this morning.”
“Yeah, been a morning.”
Their trek that day led up through the hills, in a rolling countryside with isolated hamlets on either side of the trade road they were on. They passed a few wagons going in the opposite direction, but no one stopped to talk, and it was after midday before they came across a small but gushing waterfall coming down the slope and paused to let the horses drink.
Gabrielle got down off Spot’s back and handed over the reins to Xena while she took a rough cloth bag from her saddlebag and roamed off into the low bushes nearby.
Xena hitched herself sideways and hooked one knee up onto her saddlebow, her eyes idly scanning the area nearby.
It was quiet, only the sound of the burbling water and the rustle of nearby leaves stirred the air as a breeze ruffled her hair and she drew in a breath with a feeling of contentment.
She glanced down at her hands and then unwrapped the cloth on her left palm, inspecting the surface of her skin under it. With a grunt she folded the cloth up and put it away in her saddlebag, flexing her hand and inspecting the palm again.
Gabrielle reappeared from a thicket nearby and held up her bag. “Someone missed a few bushes.” She walked over to Spot and attached the bag to her saddle. “Blackberries. We’ll have a nice dessert tonight.”
“Mm.” Xena turned casually and looked up the road. “When we get up past the next pass, we’ll start looking for a place to stop. If we stay near the tree line we should find something.”
“Sounds good.” Gabrielle pulled herself back up into the saddle. “C’mon Spotty.” She pulled on the reins a bit, as the horse had taken advantage of the thick, still green grass around the edge of the stream. “I’m not sure that’s a great name for a young female horse, Xena.”
“You let our children name them.” Xena got herself rearranged and backed Tanto. “You’re lucky they’re not both named Buppit.”
Gabrielle chuckled. “You got me there.”
Sunset found them on a wild, quiet, sloping hillside, facing west. There was a spring trickling down the hill, not large and very cold, but running through a patch of stones enough to form a pool they could get water from.
Xena finished putting in place the last rock around their makeshift firepit, and dusted her hands off, regarding her work. The pitch of the hill made it difficult to find enough level ground, but the side of the hill had been littered with randomly placed stone rubble, and provided her with enough slate to stack up and hold the firewood Gabrielle had collected and brought over.
“That’ll work, hon.” Gabrielle started arranging the boughs. “I’ve got chestnuts and those berries. Any chance of something else?”
Xena walked up the slope past her and regarded dense forest past them. “I think there’s wild goats up there.” She glanced at the fire. “Up for that?”
Gabrielle went to her saddlebags and dug in them, pulling out a pouch and looking inside. The sunset light gilded her as she turned the inside of the sack to it. “Yeah.” She said, after a minute, looking back over her shoulder. “I’ve got ground curry and ginger in here. That’ll work.”
Xena started up the hill towards the trees, unhooking her long cloak and pausing to drop it near the pile of saddlebags before she continued to stride towards the forest, disappearing among the trees.
Gabrielle got out a pan and took it, and her herb pouch over nearer the fire and dropped them onto a small flat patch of ground before she went back to getting the fire built, arranging the base and stacking the cords of wood with practiced hands.
She was glad of the woolen overtunic she was wearing, despite the sun still pouring over the tops of the next hill as the air was growing chilly. Edging over to one side, she stuffed the moss at the bottom of the pile of wood into the center of the stack and fished in her belt pouch for her flint and striker.
A few minutes of work and the fire was started, the moss curling into blackened fragments as it flared, and caught the kindling as she gently blew on it, the soft crackling and flare of warmth making her smile.
Satisfied it would continue to burn, she got up from her kneeling position and just stood a moment, looking out over the hills as the sun started to drop behind them, lighting the slope she was on in red and gold to match the scattering of trees below them likewise already adorned in autumn colors.
The trees above were stolidly green, thick, and fragrant and Gabrielle drew in a breath of the wild with a sense of peaceful satisfaction as it reminded her a bit of the slopes above their mountainside cabin home, but, she had to admit, with a better view.
She spent a few minutes watching the sunset, and keeping an eye on the fire before she went back to their gear and retrieved a water carrier, a lined, folding hide basin with a bag holding its wooden props and she took it over to the spring.
Spot and Tanto were staked out nearby, on long leads giving them access to the yellowing hill grass around the spring and they both raised their heads to watch her as she went over and knelt next to the pool.
“I snagged a couple of end of the season apples last night.” She said to them in a conversational tone. “Interested?” She stood up with the basin, feeling the chill of the water against her hands and saw both horses watching her now alertly, ears pricked in her direction. “I thought you might be.”
She brought the basin back over near the fire and set it down, holding it upright with a prop against her boot as she knelt beside it and pulled the wooden supports from their carrysack. Assembled, they formed a frame for the basin to sit in and she transferred the hide into the frame where it rested securely.
Way easier to carry than any hammered metal carrier, and far more useful than a waterskin, and invented by Xena along with the hammock stand a little higher on the hillside. Gabrielle left the water to warm from the heat of the fire and went back to their gear, pulling out a set of furs.
Not sleeping on the cold ground was great. No one argued about that, but the standard hammock would fold around both of them, and while that was snug and very cozy, if anything threatened them in the night it ended up with the hammock in pieces on the ground as Xena cut her way out of it.
Hilarious the first time it had happened, when it was just a raccoon.
Xena had decided to find a safer way to hang the swinging cot and she had, with the same use of carved wood spacers and brackets, that held the hammock out open and stable.
Gabrielle spread out the furs over the tightly stretched hide of the hammock and fluffed them, satisfied with their evenings accommodation. She turned and watched the rest of the sun slide behind the far hills and with the coming of the dusk, it got perceptibly colder as a night breeze also came through the branches overhead.
She went back over to the fire and opened the last of their camping kits, removing two folded pieces of stiffened hide. She unfolded them into two roughly trimmed seats and sat down on one, formed of two pieces of cow skin stitched together at right angles with an additional flap that could be folded out to rest your legs.
It didn’t do much to protect from the cold ground, but it did keep off the dirt, and she folded out the bottom piece that let her pull her boots up crossed on it in relative comfort. She removed her new diary from her shoulder bag and got out a quill, content to record the day and let the fire settle until Xena returned.
With a goat, or a rabbit, or hopefully not some random birds that were a pain to prepare and gamey. Here in the hills at least, there would not be fish handy, and if all failed, they still had the chestnuts and blackberries and Olympus only knew they’d lived on worse.
She heard a horse splutter, and she turned her head, to see both of their mounts staring at her. “Oh.” She put the diary down and chuckled. “Sorry, forgot.” She fished in her bag for two small, somewhat wrinkled apples and got up, walking over to offer them.
Tanto took one and crunched it thoughtfully, as though passing judgement on it, his gray ears flipping back and forth. Spot just happily consumed hers, dribbling apple juice on the ground and on Gabrielle’s hand as she reached over to give her a pat.
The two young mounts had distinct personalities. Tanto was brash and very much a stallion, and Spot reminded Gabrielle far more of her mother Argo, with a calm, deliberate attitude. Xena had decided to take them on the journey to get them experience, yes, but also because Tanto was at that age where he wanted to challenge all the other, older, larger stallions and he’d been causing chaos.
Now Tanto finished chewing and then raised his head, turning it and focusing his beautifully shaped ears up the slope. Gabrielle knew before turning what he was looking at and was unsurprised to see Xena’s tall form emerge from the trees, coming downhill. “That didn’t take long.”
Over her shoulder was slung a medium sized animal and she had her knife held in her other hand, the last of the dusky twilight lighting her path as she made her way down the slope towards the campfire.
“Who needs civilization, Tanto?” Gabrielle gave him a pat and headed over to meet the returning hunter. “At least until it starts raining. Then I appreciate a roof.” She got to the fire a few steps ahead of Xena and quickly shook out a last piece of hide, square and deeply stained with old seeped in blood that had been cleaned off its surface.
Xena dumped the body of the goat off her shoulder, already beheaded, it’s neck neatly tied. “Whole herd up there.” She said. “Maybe escaped from some farmer.” She commented. “Got some sage leaves in my pouch, in case you were in the mood for soup.”
“I am.” Gabrielle briskly rubbed her hands. “We’ll have some grilled tonight and I’ll leave the rest to cook overnight.” She glanced around. “Seems pretty safe for that?” She said. “I didn’t hear any big hunters.”
“Except for me?” Xena’s eyes twinkled.
“You make no sound, darling.”
Xena chuckled. “No, they weren’t spooked at all. Nothing up here’s hunting them.” She got up and went to the spring to clean off her knife. “Cook away. Soup’ll be good for breakfast.”
As the night fell, and the stars came out overhead, even the cold fall air couldn’t depreciate the night. Gabrielle felt a wash of happiness come over her, as Xena made some hot tea and they sat there together while their goat steaks cooked, just looking out into the faintly starlit distance.
She let her head rest against Xena’s arm, braced next to her, closing her eyes briefly and claiming the moment as you had to, in a life when bad moments and good ones interchanged with such stupendous regularity. Just take it in and savor it. “How many days do you figure until we’re out of the hills?”
“Three or four.” Xena replied promptly. “Want me to find a shortcut?”
“Nope.” Gabrielle said, cheerfully. “Take the time it takes.”
The evening of the fourth day found them coming up over a craggy ridge of limestone and pausing to review the plateau spreading out far off into the distance covered in bleached, thick grasslands that were lit now with the fiery red of the setting sun bathing them.
At the base of the mountain they were now perched on, there was a rush of a turbulent creek flowing downhill, and it stretched a silvery path through the grasslands off towards the far vision of a wider river in the distance, lined with trees.
Some distance into the grass they could see the Amazon encampment, a wide, rough circle of tents and shelters around a central open space.
“Well, here we are.” Gabrielle remarked.
“Here we are.” Xena agreed. “They haven’t seen us yet. We could turn around and go somewhere else.”
Gabrielle leaned forward against her saddle bow and looked to the left, past Tanto’s flaring nostrils. “Where’d you have in mind?”
Xena chuckled. “We could always go to Athens.”
“Oh no thanks. I’d rather wrangle the Amazons then go back there. They’d throw us in jail before we could even pass the gates this time.” Gabrielle gathered her reins. “That’s just asking for trouble.”
“Amazons are asking for trouble.” Xena said, imperturbably. “But fine.” She mock sighed. “Lets go get this over with. Maybe I can talk you into taking a boat back.”
“Ppoffft.” Gabrielle paused, and sat back in her saddle, regarding the Amazon encampment below. Across the back side of where the tents were was a patch of forest, and as she watched a flight of birds blasted out of it and winged their way across the sky. “Hope they weren’t hunting those for dinner.”
Xena rolled her eyes expressively and started Tanto down the slope. “They’re probably in there shooting up at squirrels.”
“I like squirrel.” Gabrielle eased out the reins as Spot picked her way after the gray stallion, moving sure footedly down the slope. “Hope they don’t chase them all out of there in that case.”
There was a branch wicket set up around the encampment, more to prevent incursion from random hunting animals than people, and a gate that was manned or in this case, Amazonned by a half dozen sturdy looking warriors in leggings and capes.
As they reached the base of the mountain, Xena pulled up. “Hang on.” She got down off Tanto and unlooped her waterskin, coming over and collecting Gabrielle’s before going to the creek and kneeling beside it.
Gabrielle let her eyes trace the course of the creek, marking where it meandered near the encampment and spotting, far off, figures kneeling in the grass and the distinctive whip of a fishing pole. She half turned and looked back over her shoulder, to where the creek’s head was evident, emerging from a thick pile of stone and brush at the foot of the hill. She then turned her attention back to the horizon, where the sun was starting to set, and drew in a breath that had the tinge of woodsmoke on it now, and humanity.
Xena came back over and tied Gabrielle’s waterskin into a ring on her saddle, and stood there a moment, hand on Spot’s shoulder, looking in the same direction. “They got a good response to their invite.” She remarked, briefly. “There’s at least a dozen encampments there.”
“Well, we’ll make thirteen.” Gabrielle reached over and gave a lock of Xena’s dark hair a tweak. “C’mon. Let’s go find out what this is all about.”
“Mmph.” Xena went over and pulled herself up onto Tanto’s back again. She guided the stallion down to the creek and then through it, his feet lifting out of the water in some irritation as it stung his skin with its chill. “Keep hold of her when she comes through here.”
“Got it.” Gabrielle took a tighter grip with her knees as Spot reached the creek, but the filly entered the water and picked her way over the rocky bed without complaint. She urged the horse forward a little after they climbed up the other side of the bank and came even with Xena as they moved across the grasslands towards the gate.
She studied the encampment. The ring was sizable, each group taking a decent amount of a portion of it. She could see banners fluttering above them, with colors she could not quite discern due to the sunset light. There were travel packs piled high, and as she watched a group of women were moving back from the creek with a large waterskin slung between them on poles.
As they would have been, if she’d brought the Amazons with her. A dozen warriors at least, and the accepted retinue around her, and Ephiny – possibly the two dozen that the other tribes apparently had sent. “Hm.” She grunted softly.
“Glad we came alone?” Xena looked sideways at her.
“Can you read my mind?” Gabrielle asked, seriously. “How did you know that is exactly what I was thinking?”
Xena looked like she was going to reject the suggestion, then she cocked her head slightly to one side. “Sometimes.” She responded in an airy tone. “I do have many skills.”
Xena chuckled. “No.” She said. “But I can read your face.” She gathered up her reins. “Lets get to getting.” She leaned forward and Tanto sped up, moving into a trot, then into a rolling canter, his dark rimmed ears focusing forward at the encampment.
Gabrielle stuck her tongue out at Xena’s back and nudged Spot. “C’mon Spotty. We don’t want him to get all the treats do we?”
Agreeably the appaloosa filly picked up the pace and in a moment she’d chased Tanto down, thundering along side by side with him through the yellowing grass.
They were lit by the sunset as they rode across the meadow, giving the gate guards a good look at them before they approached the beaten down path in the foliage that ended with the six warriors on guard, now coming out and standing braced to block their way.
“And so it begins.” Gabrielle mused, as they pulled up and returned to a walk. She fished in her saddlebag and drew out a somewhat tattered looking scroll, holding it in her left hand and bouncing the end of it idly against her thigh as they rode up. “Lets see if this works.”
The foremost of the guards came forward and held a hand up to her to stop, and clearly expecting them to obey.
The guards were dressed for the weather, and this one was tall and well made, with straight, shoulder length chestnut hair that shone from the sunset light. She had a woven poncho on over a long sleeved tunic and beneath the poncho were long boots running the length of her legs.
Amiably, Gabrielle pulled Spot to a halt and extended her hand out with the scroll in it. “Hi.” She greeted the woman. “I think you probably want to see this.”
Xena sat back in her saddle and let her hands rest on her saddlebow, more than content to let Gabrielle handle the negotiation of the gate. She watched the guards casually, aware they were being watched in return, and idly spent a few moments imagining the possible outcomes, including the one that might lead to a fight.
That would be fun. The guards were all well-built and alert, hands on belt knives as they waited the inspection, bows slung over their shoulders. All had on the ponchos, and from the weave, Xena assumed they were from the same tribe.
She watched the guard take the scroll without hesitation from Gabrielle’s hand and unroll it, half turning to let the dying sunlight illuminate the surface so it could be read.
Past the gate she could see evening activity, women walking back and forth with firewood and balancing bedrolls on their shoulders, everyone’s body language looking casual and as yet no one giving the newcomers at the gate a second look.
Which was sort of a bummer. Xena looked back over at the guard, who was rolling the scroll back up and handing it back to Gabrielle, seeing the shift in her body language that meant the text of it had been accepted. Ah well. She let her boots slide out of her stirrups and relaxed.
“Welcome.” The guard said, cheerfully. “You’ve made it in time, the conclave starts in the morning.” She drew back and gestured for the rest of the guards to clear a path. “Not many came with horses, but there’s a few back in the right-hand corner there.”
“Thank you.” Gabrielle tucked the scroll away. “Appreciate the directions.” She exchanged glances with Xena. “Lets go find a campsite, shall we?”
“After you, your maj.” Xena’s eyes twinkled visibly.
They were now being watched with open interest from the guards, and as they moved past them and angled to the right they attracted more attention from the other Amazons.
“Anyone we know here?” Xena asked in a low mutter. “That you know of?”
“Not that I know of.” Gabrielle responded, as the sun commenced to set and torches flared around them. “But I think you might have just been recognized, hon.” She saw one tall woman half turned with her hands on a pack, looking right at them, eyebrows hiking. “Oh yea.”
“Hehehehe.” Xena chortled softly under her breath. “That could either be good or bad.”
“Yep.” Gabrielle kept her head forward, but let her peripheral vision watch the surrounding Amazons, as she could see word start to spread, and people started to look up and look over, at the two horses quietly walking through the camp. “It sure could.”
Well, they were mounted, and the horses were well bred. Their harness had hammered bronze hardware and the material was finely worked leather, with carved patterns in it, and the leather cloaks they were wearing were equally decorated, the neck neatly fur lined.
Any of that could have caught the attention they were getting. The clothing and gear of the Amazons was all solid and serviceable, but theirs had an artisan’s touch to it that Gabrielle was well aware of, a quality that had some coin behind it.
But Gabrielle knew they were really looking at Xena, who sat relaxed, and yet tall in her saddle, her hood thrown back exposing her beautiful head, the faint smile appearing as she casually turned eyes around her, meeting the looks and making them swiftly go elsewhere.
Yeah, they knew who she was. Gabrielle chuckled to herself and glanced ahead, to where she could see reflected in the torchlight a makeshift corral in the back edge of the camp. “Over there, hon.” She pointed at the crudely erected barrier.
“I see it.” Xena patted Tanto’s shoulder. “All the way to the side behind the firewood pile. There’re a couple trees we can use to camp under past that guard post.” She eyed the scattering of watching Amazons. “I’d rather have the forest at my back then them.”
Her voice held it’s normal intonation but was pitched so that only Gabrielle could hear her, an uncanny talent she’d never been able to learn. She looked around casually, trying to detect what it was that was making her companion so cautious, but she eventually decided it was just Amazons.
Just Amazons, and Xena’s checkered history with them, which, she acknowledged, was legit. There could be someone here who held a grudge on behalf of someone in the past, though she hoped not. You just never knew, with Amazons and with Xena.
“Works for me.” Gabrielle guided Spot to the corral, and as they reached it one of the Amazons came over to open the hastily fashioned gate, a lashing of flexible branches, pulling it aside to let them enter. “Thank you.” She responded politely, as the woman gave her a nod.
Xena got down from Tanto once they were inside the corral and got to work lifting their gear off the horse’s harness, transferring its weight from the animal’s haunches to her own shoulders then reaching underneath to loosen his girth. “No funny business, buddy.”
Tanto gave her a sideways look, working his mouth around his bit as though pondering his next move. He lifted one hind foot. “Ah ah ah.” Xena warned, pulling his head towards her, and staring into his liquid, dark eye. “None of that, or you’ll end up cross hitched.”
Gabrielle dismounted and gave Spot a pat, looking around at the other occupants of the corral. As they had said, there were not many other horses, five rough coated mountain animals, a bit taller than ponies and two draft horses that were standing next to each other, ignoring the rest.
“Pack horses.” Xena said in that low tone. “But then we knew the Amazons weren’t really riders.”
“True.” Gabrielle lifted the saddle off Spot’s back and paused. “Take these with us?”
Xena paused in the act of hauling off Tanto’s and glanced around. “To keep em out of the rain if nothing else.” She remarked in a practical tone. She lifted the saddle to her other shoulder, letting it drape over her back and removed the front of the horses’ bridle, snapping free the bit that he helpfully spit out at her, covered in drool. “Thanks.”
The stallion worked his tongue around and hit her on the arm with his nose, then he turned and trotted off towards the ponies, who were watching them with stolid interest. A moment later, Spot ambled over to join him, detouring to a bucket hitched to a tree limb with water sloshing from it.
“Think they’ll be okay here?” Gabrielle came over to where Xena was standing.
“No. That jerk horse will be outta here as soon as he figures out he can walk through that fence.” Xena responded. “Hopefully he doesn’t take the whole lot with him or they’re gonna slap us with horse stealing.” She shifted the saddle on her shoulder. “But it is what it is. Ground’s too sandy for me to stake him.”
“All righty.” Gabrielle contemplated the little herd. “You guys behave!” She called after the horses. “Or no apples!”
They walked out the gate and the Amazon, standing there waiting, closed it after them and then turned and walked off with no further conversation.
“Social.” Gabrielle said, dryly, as she followed Xena as she walked up a mild slope towards the trees she’d spotted. “I can almost feel the prickles from here.” She sighed. “I really am so totally glad we didn’t bring a squad with us, Xena. They’d already be bickering.”
“Pissed off that no one was waiting to greet you with a cup of wine.” Xena rolled her head to one side and gave her a mock horrified look. “Or that you had to carry your own saddle.”
Gabrielle started laughing silently, her cloak covered shoulders shaking.
“You know its true.”
“It’s true.” Gabrielle admitted readily.
They climbed up to the top of the small rise and found a group of a dozen trees, and a clearing amongst them on the front edge of the ragged bit of forest. Xena dumped all their gear onto the ground in the open space, then removed her ax from her bag and walked further into the trees, looking for dead branches for their own fire.
Gabrielle let her saddle bags and the saddle down next to where Xena had and then she stood behind the pile for a moment, letting her eyes adjust to the light as she examined the encampment from this new angle. Ahead she could see a large campfire, and with that, and the torches there were plenty of shadows moving around, flares of firelight against lithe bodies, wearing animal pelt clothing covering most of them in deference to the weather.
They were gathered according to their separate encampments, she noted. Each one had several warriors carrying cookpots back from the campfire to their tents, each tented area blocked off from the others with brush and supplies.
There was, she felt, that air of standoffish wariness common to groups when they were in proximity to each other, to be expected when there were this many, and the competition that was usually inside the tribe now focused outward.
With a shake of her head she started getting their camp arranged, glad she’d smoked some of the mountain goat and collected a whole bag of nuts on the way. She had no intent of roaming around asking anyone for supplies.
Idly she glanced up as she worked, and caught heads turning aside, waiting for her attention to return to her task, so they could continue looking.
Well well well.
“You’d think.” Xena extended her legs out towards their small campfire and crossed her boots. “That someone would at least come say hello.”
Gabrielle finished transferring a ladle full of stew into one of the wooden bowls from her kit and handed it over, with a wooden spoon. “Do we want them to? I don’t have enough of this to share.” She remarked in a mild tone. “Even with those stretchers you provided and I don’t have any idea if I even know anyone here. I didn’t recognize the sigil on the summons and neither did Eph.”
“But yeah.” Gabrielle picked up her own bowl and stirred it. The smoked goat meat and a handful of herbs had joined the two squirrels Xena had surprised her with, and the bowl was reasonably chock full of meat along with some chopped roots she’d found in her bag. “You’d have thought someone would.”
Not a grand meal, but a hot one. She took a spoonful and chewed it, glad of the fire. With the sunset the wind had again picked up and brought a chill down from the hills, ruffling the golden stalks around the encampment and the boughs over their head.
They’d strung their hammock up and Xena had prudently rigged a tarp up over it, confidently predicting rain before morning. Now they were relaxing by their fire, in their camp seats, and a small bottle of spiced wine was warming sending a detectible tang into the air.
“At least the one who invited you.” Xena said, after a moment of silence. “It was addressed to you by name, Gab.” She eyed her companion. “It’s not like they didn’t know who they were asking.”
“Yeah, it’s sorta weird.” Gabrielle had her boots pulled up cross legged under her. “But if the conclave is starting tomorrow maybe we’ll just find out what it’s all about then. Glad we got here just in time.”
“Me too, since hanging out here with all these Amazons staring at each other would be kinda boring.” Xena said. “I don’t even see any of them out showing off.”
“Too quiet.” Gabrielle had to agree. “Not even any drumming.”
“Very un-Amazon like.” Xena regarded the camp thoughtfully. “Those kid’s who ran off from that town’ll be running back.” She predicted. “If they were looking for excitement.” She put down her now empty bowl and picked up her sword, letting it rest against her thigh as she fished her sharpening stone out of her belt pouch. “I could go stir some up.” She waggled her eyebrows.
“Xena.” Gabrielle gave her a warning look.
Xena blinked at her in mock innocence.
“Look, maybe this is just a bunch of nothing.” Gabrielle filled her bowl again and pushed it over to her. “So we spend a day here and then we can go find a market to go shopping in.” She lifted the wineskin and touched the side. “Ah. Nice and warm.”
Xena left the bowl to cool a little while she sharpened her sword, swiping the stone along the glittering length of the blade. She paused to study the surface, then continued.
“How’s that new one working out?” Gabrielle asked, regarding the sword. “First one out of the forge.”
“Nice.” Xena lifted the hilt and turned the blade in the firelight. The sword was a hand longer than her old one had been, with a slightly wider blade in a hammered finish that caught the flames and looked almost on fire itself. It was capped with a bronze hilt inset with silver tracery, and the pommel had a dark red stone embedded in it. “Took a while but I got the balance right.”
She demonstrated, twirling the weapon effortlessly in her hand. “I brought it in case we ran into any likely Athenian cohorts roaming the markets.” She said. “We shoulda just taken a left a week ago and gone to Therma.” She mused. “Maybe I coulda gotten Cari one of Patches relatives.”
“We can go on our way back.” Gabrielle patted her on the leg. “They might even let us in the gates.”
“They might. Maybe even sign a deal with us for a few of these.” Xena chuckled, then she paused, her hands going momentarily still. “Ah.” She shifted her position slightly, looking back at the blade. “We’re gonna get company.”
“You wished that into happening.” Gabrielle didn’t turn her head, concentrating instead on pouring out two cups of steaming, spicy wine. “Maybe they just want to ask directions to Thrace.”
Xena chuckled again.
Gabrielle had barely gotten the mulled wine poured out before the motion that Xena had spotted past the campfire materialized into a small group of Amazons making their way casually over.
They were stopping to pause and have conversation with groups of others along the way, but the trajectory was unmistakable and as they meandered, she studied them, her head tilted just enough to keep them in her peripheral vision as she sat with her diary.
No one she knew. Not unexpected since most of these tribes were mostly unknown to her, their sigils and tent markings not part of her recorded lexicon and as that thought crossed her mind, it occurred to her that she wasn’t wearing any identifying tokens herself.
She had some with her, tucked in a saddlebag she would wear to the conclave, mindful of the importance of ceremony in these sorts of events but self-aware enough to know she had no need to identify herself as an Amazon in her day-to-day life.
Her nose wrinkled a little at the arrogant sound of that, even inside her own head but it was, as Xena would say, what it was and no point in pretending otherwise.
The small crowd of Amazons shifted to the camp nearest to her, and Gabrielle watched their profiles, alternately thrown into shadow and outlined by the fire. Young, with that arrogant stance of newly stamped tribal warriors, their hair strung with bird feathers, but yet no rank tokens.
There was a similarity about them. Siblings maybe? Gabrielle sipped her wine, spending a few minutes in pleasurable invention, imagining backstories for these youngsters.
“I’m gonna go check the horses.” Xena said, after a few moments more of watching them wander. “Let’s see if that draws those little poults out.”
“Think they’re looking for trouble?”
Xena suppressed a grin. “What kind of trouble more like it. Depends which one of us they go for.” She put the carved cover over her cup and set it down, then gracefully stood up and returned her sword to its sheath. “Be right back.”
Gabrielle toasted her with her cup and remained where she was, watching in her peripheral vision the tall figure leave the ring of their campfire and disappear into the shadows, heading for the makeshift corral. She pulled her small foldable writing lap desk over and got out a quill, settling in to wait.
It didn’t take long, and she had just gotten halfway down her cup when she saw most of the youngsters ease out from the next tribal group and head her way.
Most of them. There had been six, now there were four. Gabrielle’s pale eyebrow lifted. Were the other two watching? Had they gone back to whatever tribe they were with? Or were they going after Xena. Were they that young and stupid?
She casually glanced to her left where her staff was lying, almost obscured by the leather mat she was seated on and then she reached out and pulled it a bit closer.
Perfectly possible they were going to ask some innocent questions. But you never knew. So her first, best weapon was there, and in the top of her heavy traveling boots was the long knife that had once been Xena’s and was her seldom used backup.
She hoped it was just curiosity. It would be a real bummer to start off this odd conclave with violence. Maybe those other two just wanted to ask Xena about the horses, after all.
The youngsters arrived at the edge of her firelight. “Queen Gabrielle. May we speak with you?” The one in front asked, in a very polite tone.
Eh. So far so good. “Sure.” Gabrielle answered cordially. “C’mon over and have a seat.” She gestured to the other side of the fire. “What can I do for you?”
The four came over and sat down across from her, sitting cross legged and resting their elbows on their thighs. None had bows, or swords, all had belt knives, worn, but serviceable blades.
They had just graduated four juniors to full status before they’d left, Gabrielle mused, and they had much the same attitude about it as these kids did. “So what’s up?” She asked. “What’s your names?” She closed her diary and put the quill down, mindful of it’s inky tip.
“My name’s Anna.” The one who’d done all the talking so far said, promptly. “We’re from a coastal tribe, we live on the edge of the sea, in the west. Toryne is just south of our village.” She looked at Gabrielle with some slight question in her tone.
Gabrielle nodded. “Sure.” She said. “I’ve heard of the area.” She added casually. “Port town.”
Anna nodded. “Yes, we trade with them.” She paused. “And we go there sometimes. A trading party went there before we came here.” She gestured to her companions. “We were with them.”
To trade for shiny new things to bring to the conclave, Gabrielle presumed, stifling a smile. Totally natural. “First time?” She asked, with an easy smile.
The youngsters grinned, a little embarrassed. “We were just bumped.” The dark haired girl beside Anna said. “So yea.”
Anna also nodded. “And we heard a lot of stuff there.” She glanced around then back at Gabrielle. “And we heard that you’ve been to a bunch of different places, so what we want to ask you, is, do you believe in the gods? I mean… like our gods?”
Both of Gabrielle’s pale eyebrows hiked up. “Ah.” She said. “Start with the easy questions.” She shifted her position a little. “What are you asking, if I think they exist, or if I depend on them in my daily life or..?”
“Yeah, kinda.” The dark haired girl said. “Both?”
“Huuh.” Gabrielle exhaled. “Well I have probably a more… complicated… relationship with them.” She admitted. “But to answer the first question, I don’t just believe the gods exist, I know they do.” She stopped speaking and waited to see what the reaction would be.
The expressions ranged from thoughtful to doubtful. “And they affect my life every single day.” She concluded after the silence drew out.
“Hey!” A loud voice interrupted them, and the girls all turned their heads towards the large campfire. Two Amazons were crossing over with a quick pace and as they crossed into the light from Gabrielle’s fire they were visibly angry. “What are you kids doing over here bothering Queen Gabrielle?”
The girls all scrambled to their feet. “We were just asking some questions.”
“Get your butts back to the camp and finish the chores you left there.” The woman in the lead, older and gray silvered, with weapon’s master tokens attached to the shoulder of her cloak, snapped out. She waited for the youngsters to all scatter, before she turned back around. “Sorry about that, your Majesty.”
“It’s fine.” Gabrielle responded in a mild tone. “They were just questions.”
“Dumb questions. I’m sure.” The second woman, a bit younger, who had a bow slung over her shoulder spoke up. “Kids!”
Gabrielle chuckled. “I have two eight year olds. Believe me. I’m used to it.” She answered. “Can I offer you a cup of wine?” She asked. “We just got here.. I was wondering what we missed so far.”
Thus invited to sit and be the first to deliver the tea to a ranking Amazon the two immediately succumbed as she expected them to and took seats near her, while Gabrielle fished some additional travel cups out and poured some of the warmed wine into it. “It’s mountain wild berry, we don’t have access to grapes that often.”
“Thank you!” The more senior said. “I’m Peleta, by the way.” She added. “I think you came the furthest, to the conclave. Was it a good journey?”
Gabrielle sat back against the mound of the saddles and their tack behind them. “Yes, we live above the town of Amphipolis, high in the northeastern mountains just this side of Thrace.” She responded. “It was a nice ride. Relatively uneventful. Weather was good for traveling.”
“It was.” Peleta agreed. “We started out two weeks ago from the coast. We were the second ones here.” She said. “My Queen was glad to see so many tribes here.” She took a sip of the wine. “A little surprised really.”
Gabrielle nodded. “Me too.” She cheerfully agreed. “I don’t think I know most of them. Do you?” She watched them scootch a little closer. “Most of the tribes on the border near us moved south… I don’t see them here.”
Peleta nodded. “Yeah, we didn’t expect them.” She said. “There was a kind of disagreement.”
“Really?” Gabrielle wiggled her boots. “Tell me about it.”
Xena strolled through the darkness of the fringes of the camp, taking her time as she passed behind some of the encamped Amazon tribes to review them. There were guards posted, on the inside facing the campfire and on the outside.
She was making no attempt to hide, so the guards saw her, and she was aware of their attention, and past the ones nearest their own campfire she could see two of the figures that had been watching them sliding along the inside of the tribal boundaries looking to intercept her.
With one ear cocked behind her to catch any sign of impending chaos, she angled past a heavy thicket of scrub brush and reached the makeshift corral.
She grabbed the edges of her cloak and took a step closer, then kicked up and out and propelled herself over the fence, flipping into a lazy somersault before landing on the other side of it and releasing the leather, letting it loose to flutter in the stiffening breeze.
It would rain, she could smell it coming and feel the change in the dampness of the air, and she was glad they would have the tarp up over their camp and they had their new cloaks, just finished and delivered to them just prior to their leaving.
She let out a low whistle, and moved out into the clear space as she saw motion from across the field and felt the drumming of hooves against the earth moving her way. Tanto came trotting up, slamming his nose into her chest and she threw her arms around his neck and stood behind him, using his body as a screen while she carefully searched the shadows around them.
Spot sedately stepped up behind her and draped her head over Xena’s shoulder, and the ponies were trailing along behind her, their noses sniffing the air, hoping for some treats.
The two draft horses stayed behind, near the back of the corral, pulling up grass and ignoring both her and the rest of the animals.
She stood quietly, giving the two horses scritches and receiving their nose bumps and nibbles, focusing her hearing past them, past the idle thumps of their hooves and the whuffles to the nearby brush, where she could hear stealthy movement.
“They gonna be that dumb?” She whispered to Tanto. “Wanna go jump over their heads?”
The stallion nudged the belt pouch she was wearing, snuffling at it. She opened it and removed a slice of raw carrot, feeling him nibble it from her fingers, then retrieved a second before Spot could protest and supplied it, all the while looking past their heads to a spot in the darkness she could now see shadows moving in.
She felt a pleasurable tickle run up her spine, then, having another thought she shifted position and got between the horses and the watchers, releasing one hand and letting it fall into a ready position, just in case. “Don’t want them shooting arrows atcha.” She murmured. “So if I say run, you run, okay?”
The two horses seemed to sense the vibrations in the air and their heads swung up, ears pricking forward as their necks arched around. Tanto snorted, and stomped one hoof. “Shh.” Xena tweaked his lip.
The shadows suddenly resolved into motion and there was a cluster of bodies that advanced to the gate and became visible between the two torches that were burning fitfully on either side of it.
Two of the youngsters, she recognized, but with four newcomers, older Amazons fully weaponed in a cluster behind them.
“What do they think they’re doing?” Xena muttered conversationally to the horses. “They bored, or do they think I am? Whatcha figure, huh?”
The ponies had stopped nearby and were cropping the grass, twitching their shaggy tails, the sound of their teeth ripping the yellowing grass rhythmic and loud.
Then a voice spoke up, from the gate. “Excuse me, ma’am.”
Xena very nearly burst out laughing. She took a breath and let it out. “Hi.” She responded, clearing her throat. “What can I do for ya?”
“Can we pet your horses?”
Her shoulders shaking in a silent laugh, Xena put an arm over each of the horses necks and ambled forward towards the gate, coming out of the shadows into the torchlight, the two animals agreeably moving along with her as she walked between them. “C’mon in here.”
The six Amazons didn’t have to be asked twice. One of them swung the gate open and they all flowed inside, shutting it behind them and coming up cautiously to where Xena was standing. “They are such pretty horses.” The woman who had spoken said. “There are breeders where we come from, but they’re mostly just farm animals.”
Xena doled out slices of carrot from her pouch. “There. They’ll be friends for life if you give em those. Put them on your palm.” She opened her hand and extended it, and could almost feel Tanto chuckling beside her. “These two are bred for riding.” She said. “And when they grow up a little, I’ll train em for fighting.”
They all looked up from where the two horses were happily chewing their offerings. “Like in battle? Like with an army?” The chatty one asked, with surprised interest, watching Xena nod. “I’m Sallu, by the way. This is Risha, Malla and Orene, and the two kids are Pima and Sef.”
“We’re not kids, remember?” Pima spoke up. “And anyway who was it who told you guys to come over here?”
“This is Tanto and Spot.” Xena performed introductions. “They’re two year olds.”
Sallu edged forward and gently stroked Tanto’s cheek. The stallion fluttered his dark eyelashes at her, and she grinned. “I’ve never seen a horse this color, and he has such a pretty face.”
The rest of the Amazons had followed her lead and were putting their hands on the animals, who stood quietly, sniffing at them with mild interest.
“They come from a mix of Thracian warmbloods and desert horses.” Xena was happy to be discussing one of her favorite subjects. “That’s where that shape comes from.” She stroked Tanto’s elegant nose. “And he’s fast, but for workers, that other type’s better.” She jerked her chin at the two draft horses.
Sallu nodded. “Yeah, that’s what they raise them for mostly. Plowing and pulling stock wagons. It’s a big port town, so lots of bales and barrels to move.”
“Down the coast, they have racing.” Orene, short and stocky with red curly hair spoke up. “Patricians. They’d like these here.” She stroked Spot’s shoulder. “For that or pulling their fancy light carts. Got some family down there that builds those.”
Xena stood there with her arms draped over the two horses’s back, considering the six of them. “You travelers?” She asked suddenly. “Move around?”
They all nodded. “Yeah, we migrate between the coast and inland, there’s some spots we camp in.” Sallu agreed. “With all the settling around there, it’s getting kinda hard to find places to set up in for long.” She shrugged. “We got a herd of goats and a half dozen sheep, that’s enough to keep track of.” She stroked Spot’s neck. “That’s what this whole thing’s about, you know?”
Xena felt a little at sea. “You don’t have traditional lands?”
“Not anymore.” Orene grinned briefly. “We used to. Way back, maybe ten years? Then a lot of people came in running from the wars. We got pushed out. So we picked up some wagons and now we move around. Trade stuff. It’s not bad, you get to see things anyway.”
“We mostly stay near the coast.” Sallu concluded. “But those port cities, they’re getting kinda weird. People show up there from other places, and they’re not so much into big groups of women traveling around by themselves these days.”
Xena looked from one to the other. “Huh.” She grunted. “Why do they care?”
Sallu shrugged, and the others did the same. “I don’t know. Just something that started up I guess. Something about traditions and some guys that were talking about how life should be. You’ve heard that stuff I guess.”
“I have.” Xena said, after a pause. “They usually stop saying those things after I kill a few of them.” She added mildly. “Kinda stops the argument.”
There was a moment of silence, then Sallu started chuckling, with a touch of embarrassment. “Yeah, well there are a lot more of them than there are of us.” She admitted. “Gonna be an interesting talk tomorrow.”
A shout in the distance caught their attention, and they all paused to listen. “Maybe they spotted a deer.” Orene said. “Bout damn time.” She gave Spot a final pat. “C’mon, lets see if they picked up something besides water rats.”
Xena was content to stay where she was. “That what you were hunting in the creek before?”
Sallu nodded. “They’re swampy, but you can catch em.” She motioned for the rest of them to follow. “Thanks for the chat, ma’am.”
“Xena.” Xena interrupted her.
They grinned at her. “Xena.” Sallu said, with more confidence. “See you tomorrow.”
They all quickly made their way out of the corral, breaking into a trot as they started back towards their encampment on the far side of the gathering.
Xena let the silence fall again, as she stood there between the horses. Both now dropped their heads and started cropping the grass and she drummed her fingertips along the their backs as she pondered. “This is gonna be a weird one, kids.” She finally said, with a sigh. “Lemme go see how the other half made out.”