Body, Heart and Soul

Part 1

A light scattering of snowflakes pattered softly down, dusting the hard packed ground of the central square of the Amazon village.    Figures moved through it, long cloaks covering their bodies briefly kicking free of fur lined boots as they walked along.

Most were headed to a newly built dining hall, with neatly fitted stone walls and a slate roof.  To one side of the roof was a chimney, where the smoke from cookfires was rising and creating a clear spot briefly free of the snow.

Outside the hall three Amazons were chopping wood for the fire, boots braced against cutting blocks and axes rising and falling in a regular rhythm.

Next to the dining hall another recently refinished structure stood, a round building with a covered porch surrounding it.  On the porch were workbenches, and on the workbenches were Amazons busy about any number of tasks.

The doors to the round hall stood open, and a small group of women were in the doorway, having a discussion, the light sound of laughter ringing out over the central open space, echoing softly back from the walls of small dwellings scattered around the edge of the clearing.

From a slight rise behind the dining hall, down a rock lined path two women emerged, both in thickly lined cloaks, and headed towards the round hall.  Both were blond, both were of medium height though one was slightly taller.

“Y’know, Gabrielle.” The taller woman said, as they walked. “It’s really damned nice to be able to afford all this stuff.”  Ephiny indicated the cloak, and the heavy boots she was wearing. “I didn’t realize really how much colder it would be up here than where we lived before.”

“Oh yeah.” Gabrielle agreed. “Cyrene told me this morning that they’ve spotted another trader wagon train heading this way. I guess word’s good and out that we’ve got coin to spend.”  She waved her hand at the group in the doorway. “Let’s go inside, folks.”

She put her cloak’s hood down as she entered the gathering hall, exposing her pale, straight hair to the lamplight inside as she looked around the busy interior.  “Ah, there you are.”  She detoured around to one side, where six Amazons were clustered, surrounding a table full of rocks. 

Behind the table was a tall woman with dark hair, wearing a sleeveless leather tunic and long hide pants tucked into sturdy boots.   One hand was resting on the table, the other hand a piece of rock in it. “Here I am.” Xena agreed.  “I think we’ve got enough ore here to see what kind of steel we can make out of it.”

“This the new load that came down yesterday?” Gabrielle picked up a piece and examined it.

“Yup.” Her partner said. “They dug this out of that cave midway down the slope.”

“Could we sell the ore off to someone who wanted to use it too?”  One of the Amazons asked. “I heard some of the traders talking about a city south of here that wanted stuff like this.”

“We could.”  Gabrielle answered. “We can sell some, and use some, especially since Xe’s agreed to teach everyone how to smelt iron and steel, and make armor and stuff from it.” She bumped her soulmate affectionately.   “But let’s put that off until after council.”

The small group broke up and went to take their seats, as the rest of the tribe filed in the doors and started to fill the room. Gabrielle watched them, her elbow resting casually on the knee Xena had braced up on a bench.

Xena leaned closer and blew gently into her ear, making Gabrielle smile. “And stuff?” The taller woman uttered. “They all want crossbows and swords.”

“Sure.” Gabrielle agreed. “But you’ll teach them to make pots and pans too, right?”

“Heheh. What makes you think I know how?”

“C’mon, Xe.  If you can make that hammered leg armor, tell me you can’t figure out a fry pan.”  Gabrielle gave her an indulgent look.  

“You don’t hammer those.” Xena responded, in an absent tone “You cast them.”  She watched the gathering Amazons. “Hard work. I think I can get these guys to learn to make arrowheads, not sure they’d buy into putting that much effort into a soup pot.”

Gabrielle turned fully and looked at her. “What?”

Xena straightened and patted her on the back. “We can talk about it later.  Your court awaits, your Majesty.” She indicated the raised platform at the back of the hall. “G’wan.”

“Join me?” Gabrielle extended a hand and waited for Xena to take it. Then she led the way up to the platform, climbing up and releasing her consort as Xena detoured around to the back of the dais and her customary seat near the wall behind her.

Customary seat, in this, their newly redone gathering space that now sported river stone walls and a slate rock roof like the dining hall, replacing the wood and thatch that had previously let in wind and dampness.

Three sets of doors, that could be thrown open during the summer heat, and sturdy windows that could likewise be opened, but now were fastened firmly shut against the cold.

Along one side of the hall there was a fireplace, and there now was a neatly built fire in it radiating warmth into the room.   Gabrielle untied her cloak and removed it, draping it over her chair next to the one Ephiny was already sitting in.

She was in leather, but not the brief, revealing outfits they wore in the warmth of the spring and summer in deference to the cold outside, and she looked out over the crowd who likewise, were clad in furs and hide and in some cases, wool.

Different.

Gabrielle smiled briefly and took a seat. Her body was covered with a beautifully cured overlay, laced down the front neatly fitted, over a long sleeved linen shirt and her rank tokens were woven into the leather and draped over her left shoulder.  “Good morning, everyone.”

Xena relaxed onto her little ledge, folding her arms over her chest and regarding the now attentive crowd.   Pretty much every bench was filled, and as she watched the faces that were now focused on her soulmate she had to acknowledge the wave of change that had overtaken them.

The core of the tribe was still there, of course, though many of the older faces were gone now.  Unable to cope with the new direction Gabrielle was taking them, they had taken a share of the newly mined wealth and left gone on to different tribes and a more traditional way of living.

But still the core was there, warriors roughly the same age as Ephiny and Eponin, contemporaries of Solari who were scattered in the crowd, content to be along for the ride.   Around them were the youngers,  Gabrielle’s contemporaries and the newly feathered warriors who were now coming into their own.

And the elders, those who were content to have their retirements now shored up by the tribe’s new wealth and to live in well built huts with a bit more creature comforts.

Different, but, they had decided in a good way.   Xena muffled a smile as Gabrielle started on her daily announcements, this council encouraging the exchange of information and designed to draw out thought and objections rather than allow them to fester.

Also different.   Also, Xena decided, in a good way.    She drew in a breath, feeling a bit of warmth against her bare shoulders from the fire, appreciating the slight ache of muscles well used in demonstrating the art of the anvil since just past dawn.

She had two promising apprentices.  One being a newcomer to the tribe, who had traveled with them back from the coast, a burly woman who didn’t talk much, but who had a nice way with a hammer. The other was Paladia,  who had stepped up and showed a surprising knack for the art, though given her drawing ability perhaps not so surprising.

All in all, positive changes.  Xena herself was no longer loathe to spend time in the village, though she spent more of her day down in the town with the militia – grown into a more formidable force as the town once again started to cautiously expand.

“So the news we’ve had from down river is that the train heading this way is twelve wagons.” Gabrielle was saying.  “That’s good news, lets make sure the trading goes both ways as much as we can.  I want people to know we’ve got good products that they can come here for, not just that we want to buy stuff.”

“We’ve got some new stuff.”  Das spoke up from one of the closer benches.  “Renas and I took some of the chips and bits and made some ear cuffs and necklaces.  Town likes em.”

Gabrielle smiled at her. “Thanks, Das.  I heard the miller down in town saying he’d bought some for his wife.”

Renas merely nodded, but her expression was mostly content. 

Big change there.  Xena studied the elder.  Figurehead in the last attempt to oust her soulmate from her position, the older woman had apparently turned over a new leaf.  She’d turned her back on the rest of the schemers, at least, and when a slew of them had left, she’d stayed behind.

Stayed behind and what was more,  went along with the changes, dropping her protests of the new and ignoring the jibes of others who accused her of changing sides at the breath of the wind.

Smart, Xena reflected.  She’d never considered Renas ignorant, just stubborn and maybe seeing their hierarchy, known from birth, shattering beyond recognition.

“Okay, so that’s all the announcements for today. Anyone got anything for me?” Gabrielle rested her elbows on the table and regarded the crowd, her mild expression open and inviting.   “Nothing?  Wow.  Okay, we’ve got four hunting parties going out today, so anyone who wants to be a part of one, hook up with Eponin after the meeting.” 

The buzz of conversation rose immediately, as Gabrielle sat back in her comfortable chair, a beautifully carved wooden item with colorful seat and back pads tied onto it.  “Quiet day.”

“Mm.” Ephiny agreed, her hands resting on her visibly rounding stomach.  “You’re good at this.” She complimented her friend.  “It’s damn nice to not have everyone squabbling like chicks at feeding time all the time, you know?”

“Well.” Gabrielle hiked up one knee and circled it with both hands. “I had a Hades of a lot of help getting this turned around.”   She smiled at her regent.  “But yeah, it’s a nice change.  I think most everyone’s gotten used to me by now.”

“Oh yeah.” Ephiny nodded. “Either they agreed with you, or they took off.  I was scared we’d end up with ten of us and the nutball twins but it’s worked out.”

“Mm.” Gabrielle watched the groups form and slowly move towards the doors, then her eyes lifted to the entrance as two newcomers entered. “Ah. Speaking of the nutball twins…  Hey Cait!”

The one in the lead was a slim, blond haired young woman, dressed in green leathers and carrying a long bow, and she was followed by a much taller companion, who was covered in a russet leather cloak.

The two walked down the left hand aisle towards the dais against the flow, but they were made room for as Amazons stepped aside between the benches to let them pass. 

This seemed to amuse the taller of the two, who glanced up at met Xena’s eyes, smirking a little.

Xena eased off her perch and strolled over to Gabrielle’s chair,  draping her right hand over the top of it as the two arrived. “What’s the word from the border Cait?”  She asked, without preamble.  “Any sign of raiders?”

Cait climbed up onto the platform and came over, while her partner Paladia just took a seat on the edge of it to wait.  “Hello.” She greeted Gabrielle politely, before turning her attention to the taller woman behind her. “Not a bit of a sign.” She said. “Its all rough and nothing the whole track we took when we found the Spartans.”

Xena nodded. “Didn’t expect any different, but it never pays to take a chance.”

Cait nodded. “Just so.  I did find a herd of goats, though.” She added. “I left them down by the town.  They weren’t at all marked or anything like that.”

“Just running loose?” Gabrielle asked. “Really?”

“Yes, I’m afraid so.”  Cait leaned on her bow a little. “Pally found them, really. “ She glanced over her shoulder at her companion.  “Was it by that pond?”

Paladia nodded.  “Weird.” She said. “They were just standing there.”  She said, briefly. “Followed us right off. We didn’t really find em as much as they found us. “  Her brow creased. “We didn’t have to even herd them, it was like they were just waiting for us to get there.”

Gabrielle’s brows lifted, and she turned to look up at Xena. “That is sort of weird.”

“Sort of?” Xena regarded her “You better go take a look at them. You know a Hades of a lot more about goats and sheep than I do.”

Gabrielle lifted a hand and dropped it on the chair arm. “Well that’s probably true.”  She said. “I’ve got to go down and meet with the settlement committee in town anyway. I’ll look at them on the way. But nothing else, Cait?”

Cait shook her head.  “It seems quite quiet. I didn’t even find any old campfires.”

“Good.” Xena said.

“Did you expect to find something there, hon?”  Gabrielle asked.  “I know you’ve got people keeping an eye out for Hercules.”

“Wasn’t sure.  After the Spartans came through, I wondered if any of the chieftains on that side might try their hand.” Xena said.  “Glad they’re not. I want a chance to finish the new barracks and palisades.”

“Ah.” Gabrielle stood up. “Well, let’s head on down then.   We can do all that, then get some lunch with our kid down in the school.”   She went to lift up her cloak, only to find it already being settled over her shoulders. “Thanks.”

“Let me get mine.” Xena circled the table and started towards the work table she’d been perched behind.   Amazons got out of her way in a hurry as she passed and she paused to regard the contents on the surface as she settled her cloak around her.

Really good quality ore. She picked up a piece and examined it, juggling it and slipping it into her belt pouch before she shrugged the lined and wax surfaced garment into place as she moved to join Gabrielle who was heading towards the door.

“Cait.” Xena called out as she threaded through the benches. “C’mon.”

Looking quite pleased, the young Amazon hopped off the platform and followed them out the door. “Pally, why don’t you..”

Paladia had stood up and started towards the anvil Xena had left behind. “Yeah, whatever.” She waved a hand at her friend. “Later.”  

Ephiny chuckled, watching them.   She was content to relax in her chair, waiting as she knew there would be one or two or maybe more people who would want to come up and talk, more privately.

More confidentially,  not easy in standing up in council and having their say and hoping they could get a word in her ear that would find it’s way to Gabrielle’s.

Hilarious, in her mind, since of the two of them without doubt Gabrielle was the more receptive.   But she’d found a lot to like in her new role, sitting back quietly and being more of a resource than a leader in the tribe.

It had a peaceful vibe to it.   She looked around the room with a sense of satisfaction, watching Paladia sit down in the corner and pick up a small hammer,  as Das and Renas settled near the fire with their jewelry tools, and a dozen of the youngers took stools near the back of the chamber to work on their arrows.

“Nice.” Ephiny said, to herself, twiddling her thumbs a bit.  “Wonder how long it’s going to last?”

**

“What do you think about those goats?” Gabrielle asked, as they rambled side by side down the slope towards the town.  “I halfway wondered if it was a trap of some kind, like they were sick or something.”

“Mm.” Xena was bouncing a little, her boots pattering lightly over the stones in a jaunty rhythm. She hopped up onto one of the boulders that lined the path and ran along the top of it, tucking her cloak around her before she launched herself into a flip.  “I doubt it.”

Gabrielle exchanged wry glances with Cait. “Watch it hon, there’s ice on those rocks.”

“I know.”  Her partner landed neatly and caught up to her.  “We’re not generally known for livestock here.   Not sure it would occur to someone to do that, or why.”   

“We’re known for horses.”  Gabrielle objected.

“Only very recently.”  Xena said. “No real point in it.”  

They reached the back gate, now visibly and substantially a gate, and Xena lifted a hand in greeting to the militia on guard at the structure. “Morning boys.”

“Genr’l.”   One of them hurried to open the portal, now a well built wall that delineated the town’s rear border.   No longer could someone merely pass through the town and come up the path to the Amazon’s village, or the higher plateau that Xena and Gabrielle’s home stood on without challenge.  “G’morning to ya.”

They passed through, the smell of freshly cured wood and newly packed earth strong in their noses as they moved past the guard towers and the doors pulled shut behind them.

Now they were in Amphipolis proper, the back part of the upper town that was now neatly laid out with cobblestone paths and lanes,  with cabins set back into the trees that looked well kept and tidy. 

Xena nodded a little as she strode past,  lifting a hand in greeting as two or three of the town’s tradesmen came up the lane in the other direction.    There were shops mixed with the cabins, and more activity than there had been but it was nothing like the chaos of their previous growth spurt.

They came to a crossroad and went through it, and up the slight rise that led to Cyrene’s inn and the town stable behind it.  On the other side of the road was the schoolhouse and the newly finished council meeting hall, rebuilt after the last burn out before the Spartan invasion.

Beyond that was the militia compound and the lower town, where merchants had also rebuilt, and then the fortification that now guarded Amphipolis from the river approach, thick and sturdy gates also manned by Xena’s troops.

Above the gate? The banner flying was the town colors. But over the barracks?  A yellow and black banner floated, Xena’s hawkshead symbol being dusted now with still falling snow.  Xena found it catching her eye and it made her smile, a little, seeing it.

“There they are.” Cait pointed at the guest paddock, just to one side of the barracks.  Usually it held visitor’s horses, but now it held a small bunch of thickly pelted goats, huddling against the snow as they rooted in the light cover and pulled up the last bit of grass from the ground.

“Well.” Gabrielle said. “They’re goats.”

“Mm.”  Xena agreed. “Nice looking.” She said.  “I’m going to the armory. “ She patted Gabrielle on the back and slipped past, heading down a side lane towards the barracks as the snow continued to drift down and dust her shoulders.

“Yes, they are.”  Gabrielle went over and leaned on the paddock fence, studying the animals. There were no markings on them, as Cait had mentioned, and a few of them stared back at her stolidly, munching the dry, wispy grass.  

Potadeia had raised goats, along with the sheep that could handle the rough scrub that was the best her hometown had been able to offer.  She remembered helping her mother make cheese from the goat’s milk, and watching her father use the pelts of them to make cushions for the rough wooden chairs in their homestead.

She hadn’t really been fond of them.  They had tended to use their hard horns to poke her in unlikely places, and one of them had enjoyed snacking on her skirt whenever the opportunity presented itself.  But these looked like a likely herd and they seemed content to be in the somewhat sheltered paddock, with snow covered branches overhead.

“What are we going to do with them?” Cait asked.  “I heard that lot up there talking about having some of them up by where we live. “

“They’re useful.” Gabrielle said. “They give milk, and their hair can be woven into rope and cloth.”  She straightened up. “So I’ll send a dozen Amazons down to see if they can figure out how to get them up to the plateau.”

Cait chuckled.

“Be good for them.”  Gabrielle turned and started towards the inn, pausing when she heard shouting nearby. “Uh oh. I think I recognize that voice.”

Cait came to her side instantly. “Goodness, is that Dori?”

“It is.” Gabrielle changed her direction and headed for the schoolhouse. “C’mon.”

Since Cait had fully intended on sticking to her queen like a burr this suited her admirably and she followed closely as Gabrielle strode along the walkway, her cloak bouncing slightly.  She reached out to open the schoolhouse door when it pulled back ahead of her, and  a woman appeared holding the hand of a small dark haired child. 

“Mama!”  Dori let out a yelp, twisting free from the hand gripping hers and bolting for her mother. “Mama!”

“Easy honey. I’m here.”  Gabrielle knelt to put her arms around her daughter. “What’s wrong?” She saw the tears, and looked up sharply at the teacher. “What happened?”

“Oh, Gabrielle.” The teacher exhaled. “I’m glad you’re here. I just can’t keep her in the class. She keeps interrupting everything.” She looked exasperated. “I’ve been trying to teach a lesson all morning and it’s impossible!”

Gabrielle looked steadily at her, then looked back at Dori, who had thrown her arms around her mother’s neck. “What’s going on, Dor?”  She gave her a squeeze. “What’s bothering you?”

Dori sniffled back her tears. “Mama she’s telling it all wrong!” She pointed at the teacher. “She makes the story bad!’

The teacher sighed. “She keeps saying that.” She said. “I was going over the Trojan War, and she just kept getting up and telling me I was wrong.”

“Ah.”  Gabrielle used a bit of her cloak to dry off Dori’s tears. “Well the problem is, Sara, Dori knows my version of that story like the back of her hand. Don’t you honey?”

“Mama tells good stories.” Dori leaned against her.

“Well, but..”

“And,” Gabrielle interrupted her. “When you tell it differently, then to her its like you’re saying her mother’s a liar.”  She looked up at the woman. “She doesn’t like that, and actually  neither do I.”

Sara fell silent.

Gabrielle stood up and took Dori’s hand. “But I can’t expect everyone to tell stories like I do, so when you get to those parts of the lessons, just let me know and I’ll come get her.”  She looked down at the child, who now had one arm wrapped around her leg.  “Okay with you Dor?  Boo asked me to come see if you wanted to have some lunch with us. Isn’t that nice of her?”

Dori’s face creased into a grin. “Boo! Where is Boo?”

“She’s talking with her friends the soldiers. Let’s go find her.”  Gabrielle said. “See you later, Sara.”

“Yes, okay.” The teacher said. “Sorry about that, Gabrielle.  We’ve got a big crowd of kids in ther.e I’m doing my best.”

“I know.”  Gabrielle lifted a hand. “C’mon people, let’s go find Xena.”

“Boo.” Dori trotted along at her mother’s side. “Mama, that was a mean lady.” She looked up at her mother. “Don’t like that school.”

Cait chuckled again.

Gabrielle sighed. “Well, my wild child, you should be a happy little girl that you’ve got a school to go to. I had to learn everything the hard way.”

“Too right.” Cait agreed. “I don’t think they meant to be mean, Dori.  They just don’t know as much as your mother does you see.”

“Mama knows evry’thing.”  Dori agreed.

“Oh ho ho ho no I don’t.”  Gabrielle spotted the tall, dark, cloaked figure heading in their direction at a good clip. ‘Look Dor, there’s Xena.”

“Boo!”  Dori pulled her hand free and raced towards her other mother, her little boots sending spurts of snow along the path. “Boo! Boo!”

Gabrielle smiled indulgently as she watched their daughter bolt into Xena’s waiting arms, squealing in joy as she was lifted up and over Xena’s head.   “They’re so cute together.”

Cait smiled as well. “I think she does a bit better up by the village.” She said, diplomatically.  “They’re always teaching practical things there.”

“It’s true. But I also want her to learn other stuff.”  Gabrielle said. “And play with kids from the town.  She should get exposed to more than just the Amazons.”  She smiled as Xena tucked Dori into her shoulder and started towards them. “Someday she’s going to have to choose if she wants to be an Amazon so I want her to know what she’s deciding.”

Cait blinked. “Well, gosh.”  She said. “I never thought of that.” 

“You knew what you were doing.” Gabrielle said.

“I did.” The young Amazon agreed. ‘Though I do think they’re a bit silly at times.” She confided to her queen.  “It’s much better now, you  know.”

“Is it?”  Gabrielle eyed her. “You mean now that I finally decided to do my job?”

“Not that exactly.” Cait flushed a little. “Just that everyone’s stopped arguing so much. Its more fun now.” She explained. “It’s actually quite all right to spend time in the big hall.”

Hm.  Gabrielle pondered that, realizing Cait was right.  The gathering hall had become a far more friendly place, and she’d started to hear more laughter than sniping.  She wasn’t nearly egotistical enough to think she really was the reason though. 

Dori was busy chattering to Xena, who had slowed to a stroll as she listened. “They gave her trouble at school?”  She asked Gabrielle as they met up, expression shifting to indignant.

“Not really. She was giving them a hard time because their version of the Trojan War didn’t match mine.” Gabrielle tweaked Dori’s booted foot. “I need to check the curriculum they’re using and be  more careful about when I send her there.”

“Mmm.” Xena rumbled low under her breath. 

“I told them to just come get me next time.” Gabrielle said. “She knows what she knows, you  know?”

“I know.” Her partner bounced their daughter up and down a bit.  “I don’t like people giving my kid a hard time though.

Gabrielle took her elbow and steered her towards the inn. “Come with us, Cait. Let’s see what grandma has in her kitchen before this snow buries us.”

**

Cyrene’s inn was busy,  all the tables were filled and it was only due to the back table nearest the kitchen was traditionally reserved for family left them a place to settle into.  

The crowd was a mixture of townsfolk and visitors, and Xena spent a moment studying them before she turned as one of the server girls put down a mug and plate by her side. “Thanks.”

“Anytime for you.” The girl grinned cheekily at her. “Hey Dori, here’s your cup.” She gave the child a smaller utensil, which she gripped, and winked at Gabrielle.  “Her nibs says she’s sending something special out.” She said, before she disappeared back into the crowd.

“Eh heheh.”  Gabrielle bit into a slice of roast lamb. “I foresee nutbread in my future.”  She chewed, then looked up at Xena. “Did I see more recruits by the armory?”

“Ten more.”  Xena was sharing the contents of her plate with Dori.   “Three of them from the Athenian army.”  Her lips quirked a little bit. “Apparently they’ve started using their troops to clean the streets there.”

Gabrielle’s eyebrows lifted.

“Ah, there you all are.” Cyrene appeared at the side of the table, letting her hand rest on the back of the chair her daughter and granddaughter were seated in.  “Trader wagons’ll be here tomorrow morning.   They’re getting the fairgrounds ready across the river.”

“Uh huh. Save a big stall for us.” Gabrielle said. “I’m hoping we sell more than we buy this time.”

“I told them to rope off that section near the stage.”  Cyrene said. “I figured you could knock off two birds with one stick.”

“Gramma!”  Dori tugged at her tunic.

“Yes?”  Cyrene looked down at her. “What’s up, cutie?”

“Look I found dis.”  Dori held up a feather.  “Pretty!”

“That sure is.” Cyrene examined the feather. “Did you find this outside?”

“Up with the fevver people.” Dori said. “Mama you make a story with it?”

“Sure.” Gabrielle agreed amiably. “I bet that’s a magic feather, don’t you think so?” She rested her chin on her fist and bit off a chunk of bread.   “A magic feather that came all the way up our mountain on the back of a turtle.”

“Turtle!” Dori looked at the feather in amazement. “Wow, mama!”

“See?” Xena said. “That’s how I end up fifty cubits tall with three heads.”  She offered Dori her cup of cider. “By the time she’s done, the turtle will be speaking Persian and have wings.”

Everyone chuckled.

Gabrielle munched a bit of tuber reflectively. “You’d look cute with wings.” She said. “I already know in my head what you look like with a tail.”

Cait leaned forward. “I’m sure if you’d like to describe that to Pally  she’d love to draw it.”

“Hey.” Xena nudged her with one boot. “No tails!’

“Do do doo..” Dori waved her feather back and forth. “Boo, can we go fly now?”

“In a little while, munchkin.”  Xena leaned back in her chair. “I’ll take you up to our house and we can play some games, okay?”

“Fly.”

Gabrielle chuckled.

“Don’t start, mama.”   Xena tipped her seat back, bracing her boot against the base of the table.  “I can remember some very single minded times of yours especially when nutbread was involved.”

“Hah hah.”

Cyrene patted her daughter on the shoulder.  “If any of your boys are going down the river, can they check the ice, please?  One of the travelers who checked in here this morning said he was seeing hard skin near the narrows.”

“Sure.” Xena said. “I’ve got a patrol going out  past Potadeia later. I’ll have em look.”

‘Thank you dear.” Cyrene leaned over and gave Xena a kiss on the head, then she tweaked Dori’s nose before she retreated back into the kitchen. 

It made Xena smile, and she exhaled in contentment as she gazed around the inside of the inn, busy and full of patrons as it usually was these days.  The inside walls had been freshly relined with bark lifted from the trees cleared for the new housing, and she could smell the tang of the lime whitewash they’d painted it with.

There were more tables, squeezed in where they could be, and on the other side of the far wall, a new section of the inn was in progress – the first expansion in many years.  

Oil lamps had been added to the walls as well, though they were doused now in deference to the pallid winter light coming in the lead paned windows, and between the lamps the spaces were filled by woven mats and skins, and above the big fireplace a neatly painted scene of the town itself, as seen from the river crossing.

Paladia’s work. Xena smiled every time she saw it, though she was glad the other bits of the  ex-renagdes talents were kept for the inner, private rooms where she knew smaller pictures of Cyrene’s family decorated the walls.

Toris, Granella and the twins, and of course, herself and Gabrielle with Dori.   It seemed a little hard to believe, looking at them how much their lives, all of them, had changed over the past few years.

“Xe?”

Xena glanced up as Gabrielle’s warm touch circled her wrist. “Hm?”  She noted one of the town councilors seated next to her partner and gave him a nod. “What’s up?”

“Xena.” The townsman said. “Just had a bunch of travellers come up the road, saying they’re looking for shelter. Don’t have much in the way of coin, but one of them says they  know you.”

“Know her or just know her name?” Gabrielle asked.

The townsman shrugged. “Said he knew her, but who knows right?” He admitted. “Anyway, could you have a word with them, if you have a minute?”

Xena pondered the question.

“Want me to go check them out, hon?” Gabrielle offered. “You can finish your lunch and Dori’s.”

“Nah.” Xena stood up and put Dori down in her seat. “Be right back, kiddo.” She said. “You keep your mama company, okay?”

“Boo!” Dori, predictably, protested. “Don’t go!”  She started to scramble off the chair but was pre-empted by her mother who slid into the seat with her. “Mama, want to go with Boo!”

“Yes, I know, but you let Boo go talk to her friends and she’ll be right back.” Gabrielle took a precautionary hold on the child as she watched her partner thread her way through the crowd.  “I’m sure it’s someone nice.”

Dori scowled.

“Or maybe not.” Gabrielle sighed.  “With Xe’s old friends, you just never know.”

**

Toris came in from the back door and went over to the big family table, settling next to Gabrielle with a long, drawn out sigh. “Whoof.  Snow’s getting worse.”

Gabrielle had been tearing a piece of bread in half, putting some soft cheese on it and handing part of it to Dori.  “Xe’s sending a patrol to check the ford.”  She told her brother in law.   “But the elders up in the village all told me they felt it was going to be a hard winter.”

“Not so hard as it could have been, with that valley.” Toris remarked.  “Gran said she’s seen a big change up there.” 

They both paused as the door swung open and Toris’s twin boys ran in, spotting Dori and rushing over to the table. “Dor Dor!”   Little Lyceus yodled. “Dere’s a baby cow in the stable!”

Dori’s eyes lit up. “Mama, let me go see!” She wriggled loose of her mother’s arms. “Want to see the buppit!”

Gabrielle released her. “Okay, but you guys be careful, all right?” She held on to Dori until she got nods from all three children. “Don’t get near the mama cow, she might not like you touching her baby.”

“Okay mama.” Dori tugged against the hold. “We’ll be careful, and we can stay by Rusty okay?”

“Okay.” Gabrielle let her go, and watched the kids scamper off through the back door, and through the kitchen where another back door would let them out near the path to the stables.  “Oh my gosh those little rugrats”

Toris chuckled.  “They’re growing like weeds. “ He smiled as the server came back and offered him a plate of lamb and tubers. “Thanks.” He put the plate down and started eating. “So, I hear Dori got in trouble at school today?”

Gabrielle picked up her mug and sipped at the cider. “Yeah.” She admitted. “It’s my fault.”

“Your fault?”

“Yeah.” The bard nodded. “Shes too young yet for me to explain to her about shades of gray. Everything for Dor’s black and white, right or wrong, and she thinks whatever comes out of our mouths is right.”

“Ah.”  Toris looked sympathetic.

“It’s hard, you know?” Gabrielle sighed. “I know more than anyone how fallible the two of us are, and yet it just makes me hurt to imagine her face when she figures it all out.”   She glanced past him at the crowd, then met his eyes again. “I remember how I felt.”

“When you saw through my sister’s act?”  Toris smiled, to take any sting out of the remark, but Gabrielle shook her head.  “No?”

“No.. Xe..  I always saw more than one side of her. I mean..  the second time I met her, I was trying to keep your hometown from stoning her to death, you know?”

“Oh. Right.”

“She never pretended to be one of Aphrodite’s cherubs.”  Gabrielle smiled, then went pensive. “But no I was thinking of my own childhood.   I remember getting beaten by my father the first time, and just not understanding what I’d done.”

Toris reached over and put his hand on her arm.

“I remember that moment of everything I’d believed being turned up side down.” Gabrielle sighed. “How much that hurt.”

“Sure, but she’ll never have to worry about that.”  Her brother in law said. “Hard to think of a more devoted pair of parents than you and Xena.”

“Now, sure.”  Gabrielle smiled faintly. “But someday I’m going to have to sit down with her and explain to her things she’s going to hear about eventually like Xe’s son, and her older half sister.”

“Ah.” Toris’s face scrunched up. “You know, it’s so hard for me to think about that, knowing you guys now how you are.” He admitted.

Gabrielle’s smile broadened a little. “Yeah, me too to be honest.”  She got up and set her cup down. “Let me go see who these old friends’s of Xe’s are.  Then I’ll go make sure the kids aren’t making horse turd sculptures out there.” She patted Toris’s arm as she went past, and acknowledged the greetings as she headed for the door.

Toris tucked into his lunch. “Glad the worst my kids are going to hear about is me falling on my head and getting dragged behind the plow horse.” He shook his shaggy, dark head.

**

The man was tall and thin, and though his brown hair was now liberally spiked with gray, Xena recognized him. “Timos.”  She extended a hand and he clasped her arm without hesitation. “Been a long time.”

“It has, Xena, it has.” Timos perched on the fence post, just inside the sturdy new gates of the town. “After I retired from the raiding biz, I settled out down south of here, little town, had me a little family, you know how it is.”

“I do.”  Xena was sitting on a barrel, hands braced on the edges of it. “What happened?”

“Fate caught up with me.” Timos said. “Town got overrun by a warlord last spring.  They took everything wasn’t nailed down, including women and children.”  He glanced past her, his eyes unfocused. “I was out hunting. Came back to nothing but ashes.”

“Damn.” Xena murmured.

“Some refugees from the next town, said they saw them taking the plunder with them to the west. My wife and son were with em.”  Timos exhaled. “Maybe they’re gone by now, but I want to find out.’

“Sorry to hear it, Timos.” Xena said. “That’s tough.”

“Hey, we used to do stuff like that.”  Timos shifted his eyes to her face. “Though I heard you got reformed.”

Reformed.  Xena smiled with a touch of grimness.  “You could say that.” She said. “Though, I tell people it’s a Hades of a lot more trouble to be hero than a villain.”

Timos nodded. “I heard. They tell stories of you around.” He agreed. “Anyway, I spent the summer trying to track the bastards down, but no  luck. They had too long a lead on me.”

“Probably holed up for the winter now.” Xena said.

“Figured the same. So I hooked up with a bunch of stragglers and we ended up here.” He said. “Wasn’t till I saw the banner I remembered this is where you’re from.”  His lined face, with a deep scar across the side of one eye, tensed into a wry smile. “Thought I’d drop your name, see if I could work for my keep until spring, and then go out looking again.”

“Sure.” Xena answered easily.  “Got plenty of work here.. as you can see.” She indicated the stockade fence, which was being worked on despite the snow.  “What about the rest of them?” She asked, glancing through the half open gates and the party that he’d come with. 

“They been on the road a while.  Three of them are buskers.” His face showed a touch of disdain.  “Older guy’s a vagrant who got kicked out of his house by his kids when they had two kids of their own and were out of room.”

Xena’s eyes widened slightly.

‘Not bad people.”  Timos said.  “The busker’s probably be some entertainment.. that an inn up there?”  He indicated the rise behind them.

“Yes.” Xena said, getting up off the barrel. “My mother’s.” She added, with a brief grin as she pushed the gate open wider. ‘C’mon in, boys.” She motioned the small, somewhat woebegone group inside.  “Halston, take this bunch and get them a bed and a meal, wouldja?”

“Genr’l.” The soldier/woodsman came trotting over, shaking his cloak free of the still falling snow. “Right you are.  Come with me.” 

“Timos, we’ll talk later.” Xena said. “I’ve gotta get back up the hill.”     She watched the small group, relieved looks on their faces, follow Halston off towards the barracks and found herself shaking her head. 

‘Thanks Xena!” Timos called back, as he caught up to the group, lifting his hand to wave at her.

Xena waved back, then turned and headed back up the rise to the upper part of town, her boots crunching lightly in the snow.    Timos had left her army about a year before she had, and she remembered him as a mediocre fighter, but good with horses, and possessing a reasonable singing voice whose echo faintly sounded in her head.

He’d also been a skilled leatherworker, she recalled, and remembered him spending time in the down times taking old hides they’d scrounged and making them into shoes and sacks.

She drew up her cloak hood and settled it around her head, blinking the snowflakes out of her eyes  and licking her lips to find a few on them.  

The lanes were mostly empty now, as everyone got out of the snow, and she made her way up unhindered  until she spotted an equally cloaked figure heading her way, easily recognizable despite the thick fall. 

They met at the crossroads.   “Hey.” Gabrielle said. “What’s up?”

“Old soldier of mine showed up with a bunch of buskers and a vagrant. I gave em house space.” Xena told her.  “Figured they might be useful.”

“Buskers?” Gabrielle’s voice lightened with interest. “I’ll check them out later.”  She pulled Xena’s cloak a little closer to her. “You ready to collect our child and head up?”

Xena tipped her head back, then looked back down. “Sounds like a good idea, since this isn’t showing any signs of stopping.  Hope it settles out before the train gets here tomorrow.”

Gabrielle nodded.

Xena rested her forearms on her partner’s shoulders. “You okay? You sound a little down.”

Instead of answering, the bard stepped forward and pressed her body against Xena’s, circling her with her arms and giving her a hug.   Xena returned the embrace,  sensing the turmoil but not really understanding the source of it. 

“Lets go.” Gabrielle released her, but took hold of her hand and turned as they walked along the path towards the stable.  “Apparently we have a new family member.”

“Ah, the calf?”

“Yup.”

“Hope Dori isn’t trying to ride its mother.”

**

It was an all out snowstorm not long after they got up to their cabin on the top of the mountain.  Gabrielle was glad to hang their cloaks out to dry as she listened to Xena playing with Dori near the fire. 

It felt very good to be in the quiet of their snug home,  and Gabrielle felt herself fully relax for the first time that day.  She went over to the couch in front of the fire and dropped into it, extending her legs out and stretching. “Ahhh.”

 Xena looked over at her.  “Tough day?”

Gabrielle had one arm over her eyes and she kept it there for a moment, then she turned her head and returned the look. “It shouldn’t have been.” She said. “I thought the council went okay this morning, and the mood in the village’s really improved hasn’t it?”

“Yeah.”  Her partner agreed, focused on playing patacake with their daughter. “It really has and not just because you finally taught some of those women to cook.”  She watched Dori grab her hand.  “Everyone just seems to be chilled out.”

“Uh huh.”

Xena picked up Dori, then rolled onto her back and lifted the delighted child up waving her back and forth as she extended her arms and legs in a flying motion. “Helps that most of the cranks left.”

“Xe.”

“Well it does.” Her partner shrugged.  “I think your idea to pay them off and get rid of them was right on.”

Gabrielle studied the ceiling.  “That makes me sound pretty ratty.”

“Why?”

“I’m supposed to make people work with each other, hon. Not just throw coins at them.”

“Eh.” Xena swung Dori around in  a gentle circle. “You can only do so much leading. Eventually the horses have to decide to drink. I’m glad they took off. Less crap.”

“Boo Boo Booo…” Dori burbled. “You know what Wusty told me?”

“What did he tell you?” Xena let her down and sat up.  “Ya can’t always depend on what ponys say y’know.”

“Boo he said the cow said she wants to run away.”  Dori told her in an earnest tone.  “To go to a circus!”

Xena looked over at Gabrielle, lifting her eyebrow.

“Not mine.” The bard held up a hand, palm outward.  “I promised you I’d lay off the cow stories with her, and I did.”

“Why does the cow want to run away to the circus, Dor?”  Xena asked.

“I dunno Boo.” Dori pulled her legs up under her crossed on the thick bearskin rug. “To have fun?”

Xena scooted over to the couch and leaned back against it, extending her legs out as Dori clambered over them.  “Not sure being in a circus is fun.” She said. “What do you think, mama?”

“Having been in the center of a bunch of people wanting to be entertained, I’d have to agree, Boo.” Gabrielle reached out and tangled her fingers in her partner’s thick, dark hair.  “You  know what I was thinking?”

“Bet I’m about to.” Xena put her arms around Dori, who was leaning back against her. “You ready to take a nap, kiddo?”

“Boo, can I bring Rusty up here? I want to play with him.”  Dori asked, turning around and looking up beseechingly at her parent.

“No.” Xena replied, smoothing her hair down. “He can’t come up here, Dori, it’s too hard, and too dangerous for him. You don’t want him to get hurt.”

“Not to mention, mama really doesn’t want to clean up his poop in your room.”  Gabrielle added, wryly. “So you’ll just have to visit him down in the town, my little horsey girl.”

Dori poked her lower lip out in a pout.

Xena got up and picked Dori up in her arms, carrying her into her room.   She put her down in her bed and sat down next to her, taking off her little boots.  “How about we see if you can sleep over at your cousins for a night or so. You like that, munchkin?”

Dori considered that. “With Lolo and Lesus?”

“Uh huh. They live right near the stable. You guys could..” She lowered her voice to a whisper. “Talk my brother Toris into letting you stay in there overnight.” She tweaked her toes. “Your mama and I used to stay overnight in that barn.”

Her daughter looked intrigued.  “Was it fun?”

Xena smiled at her, blue eyes twinkling. “Some of the best fun I’ve had.” She said. “So let me see if I can set that up for you, okay?”

“Okay.” Dori grinned. “Dank you, Boo.”  She lay down and reached out to pull Xena’s nose.  “Love you.”

Xena leaned over and gave her a kiss. “Love you too, Dor.”  She tugged the light fur up over Dori’s small body and got up, moving back into the main part of the cabin where Gabrielle was still sprawled bonelessly on the couch.

She gently lifted Gabrielle’s upper body up and slid underneath her, settling her back down in her lap and wrapping her arms around her. “Now.”

“Now.” Gabrielle repeated, hearing the wind whistling outside and the hiss of snow falling down their chimney.  “What was I saying?”

“What were you saying?”  Xena stroked her hair back. “You said you had thought of something.”

“Ah.” 

When the bard didn’t say anything else,  she gently started massaging her partner’s temples, watching her eyes close and a faint smile appear.  “Here’s what I was thinking.”

“Mm?”

“I was thinking it’s gonna snow all night, and there’s no place I’d rather spend all that time than in our bed.”

“That sounds great.” Gabrielle said. “But hardly a shock, hon.  I kinda assumed that’s what we’d be doing.” She looked up at the planed, angular face regarding her.  “Glad we’re here tonight though.  I felt like being by myself.”

Xena’s brow lifted sharply.

“Tcha. You know what I meant.”  The bard pressed her cheek against her partner’s stomach. “Im just fidgety today and I don’t really know why.”  She could feel her body relaxing though, savoring the warmth of the contact with Xena’s. “Hey, by the way, thanks for staying down in the village with me. I know the tribe really appreciated that”

“I don’t mind it.” Xena kept up her massage.  “But I told Dori I’d arrange a sleepover at Toris and Granellas so she could spend time with her cousins and that damned pony.”

Gabrielle peered up at her, a surprised but pleased smile appearing.

“See if we can run out those fidgets.” 

**

Xena woke in the pre-dawn quiet, only the faint sounds of the creaks and pops of the wood frame of their home under the weight of a new coating of snow.  She kept her eyes closed and let her ears wander, detecting the faint patter of a rabbit running over the icy ground and then the soft crack as an overloaded branch broke and caused a tiny avalanche.

Inside the cabin there was still a small residual warmth from the fireplace, and an unusual peace that would remain due to Dori’s absence down the hill.

She was looking forward to a quiet morning with Gabrielle. Her partner was still deeply asleep, her gentle breathing warming the side of Xena’s neck and the weight of one arm thrown over her bare midriff doing likewise.

There was a lot going on. They were both very busy, Gabrielle with running her tribe and Xena with building up her army,  and the growth of Amphipolis keeping them really occupied and she’d been looking forward a little to the cold season when things tended to slow down and there was less chaos.

Though, with them, she’d come to realize, chaos was a given.   Xena smiled a bit, letting her eyes drift open and waiting a moment for the interior of the cabin to come into focus around her.  If they’d been down in the village, she knew, she’d be hearing the morning watch stirring, and the sound of the dining hall getting their breakfast on.

But here, they had some provisions by the fireplace  and a sense of isolation.  They would break a leisurely fast together, and then go down to meet the incoming traders, along with a honor guard of Amazons and a handful of her soldiers.

Hopefully the quiet time would make her partner’s mood better.   Xena studied the pale head tucked into her shoulder.  Certainly it had been as they dropped off to sleep at any rate.  They had some level of privacy in the Queen’s quarters of course, but Gabrielle was always mindful of how close the village was to them and it was just different when they were up here in their home.

She took a deep breath and let it out, enjoying the comfort of the featherbed as it cradled her body, easily the most decadent thing they both owned.  Their garb was rough leather and cloth, the cabin’s other furnishings sturdy and functional, but the bed?

None finer anywhere.   Xena watched the dim gray winter light start to peek in through the leaded glass and as it did, she felt Gabrielle stir, nestling closer and then giving her a one armed hug.  “Morning.”

“Morning. “ Gabrielle burred in response. “Thanks.”

“Thanks?”

“Thanks.”  The bard repeated, pressing her body against Xena’s.  “For being so smart, and caring so damn much about me.”

Xena returned the hug.  “Good thing for both of us we met after I grew out of being such a teenage jerk with a sharp sword and no brains then.”  She advised her partner.   “I finally got some sense in my old age.”

“Aw, grandma.”  Gabrielle kept her eyes closed, just enjoying the banter and closeness.  She could hear Xena’s heartbeat and feel the steady breathing under her arm, and she rubbed the edge of her thumb against the skin her hand was resting on.

All that smooth surface, still a bit strange for her to slide her hand over and not find any trace of the scars that were taken from them both on Mount Olympus.  Gone, along with the aches and pains that had started to truly plague her, returning an energy and resilience that made Gabrielle’s heart glad to see.

If only that apple seed had worked.  She sighed a little.  But maybe they were both a little bit, back in the back of their hearts, glad.   “Ah, Xe.” She tickled her partner lightly around her navel.  Just let it go, Xena had told her, if it’s gonna happen, it will.

“Yeees?”  Xena rumbled in response. “Ready to go stir up the fire and get our butts out of this bed?”

“Hm.”  Gabrielle let her hand slide lower, her thumb tracing the soft skin over her hip bone. “Stir up a fire…” She felt Xena chuckle soundlessly.  “I might be into that.”

“Oh yeah?” 

“Yeah.”

**

Xena sat down on the couch to pull on her boots,  listening to the faint scratching of Gabrielle writing on a scroll nearby.    She tugged the lambswool lined footwear up over her left calf and tightened the gut laces, luxuriating in the ability to perform the task without  Dori trying to help her out.

“You still expecting an emissary from Thrace?” Gabrielle asked, after she’d paused for a moment.  

“Probably not until spring” Xena pulled on her other boot. “Give us a chance to get things built up here.  I’m hoping they agree to an alliance.”

“Why not?  You hornswaggled the nearest Amazon tribe into one.” Gabrielle glanced over at her, a distinct twinkle in her eyes.  “Of course, I hear the crazy chick in charge has a thing for you.”

Xena chuckled audibly. “Yeah, I heard that too.” She stood up and stamped a few times to settle the boots fit.  “Unfortunately the warlords west of us probably won’t have the same kind feelings for me. I think I ambushed a few of them with my army back in the day.”

Gabrielle folded and sealed the parchment she was working on, then put it in her carry bag.  She went over and donned her cloak, then put the bag on it’s shoulder strap over it.  “Ready to go see what the road’s brought us, General?”

“Yes, my queen.”  Xena got her own cloak on over her winter leathers and fastened it, then reached back to sort the hood of the garment and set the slit in place that allowed her sword hilt to pass through  “Let’s go see what calamity our child has caused overnight.”

Gabrielle picked up her staff and pushed the door to the cabin open, emerging into the chill winter light to find the ground thoroughly covered in snow that showed no signs of melting. “Brr.”

“Brr.” Xena agreed, shutting and fastening the door behind them.  She joined Gabrielle as they walked down the steps to the path and started down the steep slope that would eventually deposit them at the town gates below.

“Got cold fast this year.” Gabrielle commented, as she used her staff to poke the ground ahead of them.  “Feels like it was just harvest time.”

“It did.  Glad we got all the crops in” Her partner said. “But you know what I am kinda worried about?”

“No sign of Hercules.”  Gabrielle said.  “Maybe he figured out how to get them back up there by himself, hon. He’s a demigod.”

“True.”

They came to the hanging bridge, and crossed it confidently, the sturdy planks spaced far enough apart that the snow hadn’t covered them.  Below the bridge the dry chasm was a vast tangle of dried, dead foliage and snow cover.  “We should watch the floods this spring if the snow’s sticking this early.” 

“We get floods, I’m staying up at the village and so are you.” Gabrielle stated. “I don’t care how many lambs drown. I’m not doing that again.”

Xena put an arm over her shoulders. “Right there with ya.” 

They walked along the path and within a few minutes they were at the entrance to the Amazon village, where a cluster of fur wrapped warriors were hanging out waiting for them.

Each of them had the usual Amazon feathers and rank markings, but they all also wore a simple silver disk with a quill and a staff crossed on it.

Queen’s guard.  Xena had been tickled to see the disks, even more that the women had made them on their own, from ore they’d dug up in the valley.    There was no question in anyone’s mind of course who the Queen’s actual guard was, but still and all she enjoyed the sentiment and was glad the whole attitude of the tribe towards her soulmate had shifted.

In the three months since they’d come back from Therma, Gabrielle had become their queen in fact, as well as in name.  

“Morning, people.”  Gabrielle waved at them. “Let’s head on down.”

“Your maj.”  Solari saluted her with a grin, then she and Nala fell into place behind her  as Cait and Paladia,  Aaliene and Pasi joined them.   “Gotta tell you, that stone bathing room was total awesome this morning.  Didn’t freeze any parts of my body off.”

‘Yes!” Nala added with a fist pump.  “And the changing room so you don’t have to break icicles off your hair on the way back to your hut.”

Xena chuckled soundlessly.

“Yeah.” Gabrielle nodded. “I thought Xe was coddling me when she built on the tub area in our place, but boy, mornings like this it’s the best.”

“Coddling you?”  Her partner eyed her. “What makes you think I enjoyed breaking ice all those damn ponds in the morning?”

“You didn’t?”  Gabrielle affected astonishment. “Xena!”

They were on the bottom slope of the mountain and as they emerged into the approach to the gates they swung open, the guards recognizing them at once.    “Morning, boys.” Xena lifted a hand in greeting. “Any news?”

She was fairly sure there would be none, as the guard had orders to relay anything important up the ridge regardless of the time.

“Morning, Xena.” The nearest guard said, with an easy smile. “Only that the trader wagons are coming into the lower town, says the watch.  They’re getting them set.”

“Good.” Gabrielle patted her bag.  “I’ve got some birthday shopping to do.”

The Amazons all laughed at Xena’s exaggerated eye rolling on hearing that.  “Hey, Champ, you’ve only got yourself to blame, you know?”

“I know.” Xena lifted her hand and waggled it. “Someday I’ll learn not to egg her on by upping the ante every year.”

The group of women walked along the fence lined road through the back half of the town and then took the turn that would take them up to the front door of Cyrene’s inn.    There were already people out on the porch, and the windows were half open to allow air to cross through the interior.  “Must be busy in there.” Gabrielle commented.

They pushed open the door and almost wished they hadn’t. The inn was stuffed full of customers, getting some breakfast before the traders set up camp, and they  had a slow go to make it through the crowd to the back of the inn.

“Kitchen.” Xena said, pointing to the door, edging past a group of men with thick hide tunics as she pushed open the panel and ushered the rest of her gang inside.

The cooks looked up in surprise then paused and waved as they were recognized.   “It’s crazy out there!” Eustace said, turning back to her pot.  “Have a seat there, ladies.”

The Amazons looked at Xena and Gabrielle, who looked back at them, shaking their heads.  With shrugs, they all took seats except for Gabrielle who patted Xena’s shoulder. “I’m going to go check on Dori.”

“Okay.” Xena relaxed, as one of the cooks hustled over and put down a platter of assorted goodies on the table.  “Thanks, Softe.”

“Go on with you, Xena.” The older woman smiled at her. “Your little one was here already, with those rapscallion cousins of hers. Ate us out the whole pot they did.”

“Not surprised.”  Xena waved off the platter but accepted a mug of morning ale from Eustace.  “She and her mother eat twice what I do. No idea where the Hades it all goes.” She took a sip.  “Bet she grabs off this platter when she gets back even though we just had breakfast at home.”

The outer door swung open and Cyrene appeared. “Ah! There you are.” She came over to where Xena was sitting. “You in the mood to chase chickens?”

Xena eyed her.

“All fifty of them.” Cyrene tapped her on the head. “It’s like having you all over again.  The Fates must be laughing their behinds off at me.”

“We’ll go find them.” Cait stood up and tugged Paladia up with her. “Come on you lot, it’ll get the blood going.”

The Amazons got up and followed her, leaving Xena at the table.  Cyrene sat down in one of the vacated chairs, and picked up a mug.  “You know the old saying?”

“ The one about wishing your kids have kids like they were?”  Xena’s eyes twinkled.   “But let’s hope that only goes so far, know what I mean?”

Cyrene lifted her mug in silence.

**

Gabrielle could hear the giggles when she was still several steps outside the barn.   She let a smile appear as she pushed the door open, sticking her head inside.  “Hey kiddos.”

Dori was at Rusty’s side, and she turned at the voice. “Mama!” 

“Auntie Gabwielle!” The twins chorused together.

Gabrielle came all the way inside and closed the door.  The barn smelled of hay and animals, and in big stalls along one wall were comfortably ensconced   Argo and Iolaus, Shadow and several other well cared for horses along with the sturdy enclosure that held Dori’s shaggy pony Rusty.

Against the other wall was a set of stalls that held three of Cyrene’s treasured milk cows, one of who had given birth to a small, wisp haired calf who was drinking from it’s mother as she watched.

It was a friendly place.  There was a hayloft overhead and if Gabrielle turned her head and looked up, she would see the faint outlines of letters carved in the beams of the roof and there were memories popping up in her mind of long, chilly nights spent sleeping under those marks wrapped up in Xena’s arms.   “What are you kids up to?”

Rusty was chewing some hay, and he stepped forward as she approached and nuzzled her hip, sprinkling bits of the dried grass on her cloak.   She rubbed his ears affectionately, looking around at the almost random scattering of boxes and bits of hide that were apparently being used for.. 

“Mama, we’re doing a story.” Dori pattered over. “See, dere’s the town, and the riber.”  She pointed at a box, and the water trough. 

“Yeah yeah.” Little Solon tugged on her cloak. “Come see we made a fort!”

Gabrielle allowed herself to be pulled over to inspect the fort, which was a crate covered in an old pigskin.  “That’s amazing, guys. What’s in the fort?”

“We gots rocks”  Lyceus showed her a handful. “And this!” He lifted something else.

Gabrielle reached down and took it. “Where did you find this, Ly?”  She asked, turning it over in her fingers. “Somewhere here?”

Lyceus nodded vigorously. “By the riber.”

“Mama what is dat?”  Dori came over and looked at it.  She extended her hand and touched one of the several points on it.  “Pretty?”

“Well.” Gabrielle exhaled. “Not really, kids. I think mama should keep this.  If it gets around in here, it can hurt our friends the horsies.”

All three young faces were stricken. “Mama how?”  Dori’s eyes were big. “No hurt anyone!”

“Let mama show you.” Gabrielle knelt and brushed the straw away from the ground. “See, something like this can fall, and it falls this way.” She dropped it.  The iron pronged item clattered on the stone and came to rest. “see how this points up?”

Dori had crouched next to her. She put her hand out and touched it. “Sharp. It gets in the horsies foots, right mama?” She looked up at her mother.  “Owie!”

“Yes, Dor, that’s right. You remember Boo taking pointy stones out of Argo’s feet right?”

“Gogo!” Dori said.  “Boo made it good.”

“Right, so let mama take this, and I’ll put it somewhere safe so it can’t hurt the horsies.”  She  dug in her pouch, and handed Lyceus a wooden ball in return. “Here, you take that instead.  Xena made it, so I’m sure it’s perfect for a fort.”

Lyceus’ eyes lit up as he took the ball and examined it.  “Pretty!” He held it up for his brother to see. “Thank you Auntie Gab!”

Gabrielle put the caltrop into her bag and glanced at her daughter, who was watching with mild interest.  Dori had, after all, dozens and dozens of carved items from Xena’s skilled hands but also, she’d noted, her daughter wasn’t possessive about her things.

Curious, a little. “Okay, so you made a fort.” Gabrielle returned her attention to the play.  “What are you protecting against? “

“Wusty.” Dori supplied instantly. “He has big feets, mama, and he goes boom boom boom!”  She went over and lifted up one of Rusty’s hooves. The pony allowed this, picking up his foot and letting Dori inspect it. “See?”

“I see.”  Her mother said, gravely. “Why would Rusty want to go boom on the fort though, Dor?”  She asked. “He looks like he’d rather just have an apple.”

“You have happles?”  Dori pulled at her bag. “He’d like that!”

Her mother produced one, with a smile. “That’s from our tree near our house, so it’s very special.” She told her. “How about you split it up and share it with your cousins.”

Argo let out a snort, tossing her head at the little crowd.

“And Argo.” Gabrielle pulled another fruit from her bag and broke it in half, walking over to deliver the treat to the two golden horses as she heard a soft creak and turned, as the door opened and a stranger came in, closing the door behind him.

He had a thick beard and a hat pulled down over his eyes, and he was covered in mismatched furs.

Gabrielle casually crossed the floor and got between him and the children.  “Hi. Can I help you?”

The man stared at her, then pulled the hat off.  “I sure hope so.”

“Iolaus!” Gabrielle yelped in surprise.  “Wheres..”

“Don’t ask.” He blinked exhausted, red rimmed eyes.  “At least not in front of the kids.”

“Ah.”  Gabrielle exhaled. “One of those things, huh?”

“Boy is it ever.”

**

Continued in Part 2