Body, Heart and Soul
Gabrielle guided Iolaus into the back room of Cyrene’s inn, the small bedroom that had a single mattress, a worktable against the wall and a couple of chairs. It was mostly being used for spare storage at the moment but at one time it had been a recovery haven for Ephiny.
“Okay.” She watched him sit down in an exhausted sort of way, sprawling on the bed and extending his booted feet out. “Want something hot?” She pumped some water into a basin and brought it over to him, along with one of the towels hanging on the wall nearby.
“Yes.” Iolaus was glad to put the basin on the footstool near the bed and plunge his hands into it, then scooped up a volume of water and washed his face. “I’ve been on the road for three weeks. Nonstop. This is the first civilized place I risked coming into.”
Gabrielle had been starting a fire in the small fireplace. Now she stood as the tinder caught and turned to look at her old friend. “Risked?”
Iolaus wiped his face off, the thick beard and moustache making him seem almost a stranger to the bard’s watching eyes. “Can I get something to drink before I start this? I’ll be talking a loooong time.”
“Hang on.” Gabrielle ducked through the door and went up the dark hallway that lead to the inn’s kitchen. She pushed open the door and entered just as Xena entered from the other side, both of them stopping and looking at each other for a long, silent moment.
Then Xena grabbed a pitcher and went to the hearth, using a dipper to bring up a portion of steaming mulled wine and filling it.
Gabrielle picked up a wooden platter and got some meat slices on it, and greens and tubers, and then she met Xena at the back door and they left together without a word.
Eustace continued stirring her caldron. “Wonderful, isn’t it? Never seen two people who understood each other so good.”
“Creepy.” One of the other cooks said. “Those two are unnatural, I’m telling you.”
“Shut your mouth, woman” A third cook said. “Unless you want to be out in the snow looking for a new place.”
Xena ignored the commentary behind her as she followed Gabrielle back down the hall. “I knew I jinxed us saying how quiet it’d been.”
“Well, hon, you were wondering what happened to Hercules.” Gabrielle shouldered the door open. “Careful what you ask for.”
They entered to find Iolaus sitting on the bed and leaning against the wall, eyes half closed. He opened them when the door opened and managed a brief grin. “Hi there, Xena.”
“Hi there.” Xena came over with the pitcher and picked up a cup off the table, and filled it. “Here.”
He took the cup gratefully and took a swallow of the mulled wine. “Mm.” He looked at the platter Gabrielle set down next to him and picked up a piece of meat off it. “I feel like I’m in Elysia.”
“Less comfortable furniture, more grass and blissed out people.” Gabrielle took a seat on the edge of the bed and leaned back against the post on the corner. “But thanks for the compliment.” She smiled.
Xena set the pitcher down and sat down in one of the chairs, tilting it back a little and bracing her boot against the bottom of the bed. “Gabrielle said you’ve been traveling a while?”
Iolaus got another few swallows down, holding up his hand with one finger extended. They waited in silence until he finally drained the cup, then stuck his tongue out . “Pah.”
“Not good?” Xena examined the pitcher.
“No it’s great, it’s just been a long time since I’ve had anything but pond water.” Iolaus sighed and let the mug rest against his thigh. “Okay, so where do I start?”
Xena poured herself a cup and refilled his. “Hercules first. Then his sisters.” She requested. “I’ve got to take care of some business down across the river, but I want to hear this first.”
“What she said.” Gabrielle agreed.
“Okay well.” Iolaus alternated words with sips and bites of food. “After we left Therma we headed out towards Delphi. Caught a ship, much as I hated to and a day out from land a storm caught us.”
“Another one?” Xena’s voice lifted. “You should have stayed on land.”
“We should have.” Iolaus agreed. “But Herc was all hot to get to Apollo’s temple and oracle there, to see if he could get Apollo on his side and help with that whole mortal thing.” He swallowed a couple mouthfuls of the wine, and extended his cup again to be filled. “Figured Apollo would do it just to get one over on his sisters, and because he wasn’t around during all that stuff up stairs.”
“Reasonable.” Xena said.
“Yeah, I thought so too, and besides you guys needed a break.” He said. “That’s what I said to Herc, too. That we should be able to deal with this without having to get you involved and he agreed. Said you earned your peace and quiet for a while.”
“We appreciate that.” Gabrielle said. “We’ve been kind of busy here ourselves.”
“I noticed.” Iolaus regarded them. “Lots of change here.”
Xena merely nodded.
“Anyway, so we got caught in a storm, and in the middle of that I was trying to help tie down some sails and lightning hit us. I thought I was a goner.” Iolaus told them. “Felt every single hair on my body stand up then the next thing I knew the mast was falling and I was under it.”
‘Huh.” Xena grunted.
“Yeah, so now I know what that feels like.” Iolaus met her eyes. “But the ship heeled over and it rolled off me, and when it all got sorted out and done I got up and looked around for Herc and the girls – and they were gone.”
Both Xena and Gabrielle looked at him in surprised silence for a long moment. “Gone?” Xena finally said. “They fell off into the water or… just gone?”
Iolaus looked off into the distance then back at her, the hurt so evident on his face it was painful to them to see it. “Yeah. Just gone. No sign of them or their gear.” He took a sip of his wine as they waited for him to continue. Gabrielle leaned over and put her hand on his arm in silent comfort.
“One thing I’m sure of.” Xena said, after the quiet turned a little uncomfortable. “Is that they were taken somewhere, you weren’t left behind by him on purpose.”
Iolaus looked up from his mug at her, eyes bleak and red rimmed.
“The lightning blast – you think that was Poseidon?” Gabrielle asked. “I could see him getting involved.” She glanced at the man sitting next to her. “Because Xe’s right. There is no way they just left you, Iolaus.”
He managed a smile. “Y’know, you two are two of my very favorite people.” He remarked. “And that’s why I headed here, because you’re the only ones I could have told that to that would have said exactly what you did and made me feel so much less of a damned loser.”
Gabrielle gave his arm a squeeze.
Iolaus drew a breath “And I sure hope you’er right, because since they were gone, and since the ship was wrecked, the captain decided that the whole thing was my fault.”
Xena frowned. “Your fault???”
“My fault.” Iolaus sighed. “They managed to limp into port and he turned me into the authorities. I had no idea what was going on.” He said. “Told them I called down the wrath of the gods on him and since we hadn’t paid for the passage since Herc talked his way on…”
“Exactly. I managed to get away, but they spread the word and I’ve been on the run ever since.” Iolaus said. “I was just lucky I managed to break out my white mare. She’s in the paddock out there with those goats.”
“Yeah I saw her. That’s how I knew you were here.” Xena said. “I told my troops to bring her in the barracks stables and clean her up.” She braced a knee up and leaned her arm on it. “So you don’t know what happened to them? No word, no nothing?”
Iolaus just shook his head.
“Wow.” Gabrielle said, after a moment’s silence. She looked over at Xena, who was slowly shaking her head. “Okay, so – what can we do for you, Iolaus?”
He pondered the question then half shrugged. “Nothing, really. Just give me a space to bunk if you can.” He responded. “I guess I just need some time to figure out what I’m going to do next.”
“Of course.” Gabrielle responded at once. “In fact, you can stay right here if you want to. Cyrene doesn’t give this room to paying guests. She said you never know when you’re going to need a little space.”
Iolaus looked around at the room, which was snug and cozy, and managed a smile again. “I”d like that.” He said. “Thanks.”
“No problem.” Xena said, standing up. “We’re going down across the river for a little while. Can we get you anything? Some clothes?”
“A razor?” Iolaus smiled more easily. “I’ve got a little coin, I’ll go down later and get some stuff and see my little mare after I get washed up a little. I don’t want to scare your mother’s cooks.” He glanced down at himself.
Gabrielle reached over and ruffled his hair a little. “I think it looks cute.” She said. “Relax, and we can talk later. I already told Mom you were here.”
“You gals run along.” Iolaus mustered a sort of skewed cheerfulness. “We’ll catch up after you get back from shopping.”
They waved, and left him sitting on the bed, waiting until they got all the way down the hall and out the back door before speaking.
“I know.” Xena pulled her cloak around her and put her hand on Gabrielle’s back. “Let’s go down there and get what we need to get done. Then we can figure out what to do.”
“And get him a razor.” The bard exhaled, her breath a long stream of fog in the air. “What happened, do you think? Was it Poseidon?”
“Have no idea.” Xena motioned over one of her soldiers as they reached the town gates and waited for him to jog closer. “Andos, there’s a man staying in the back room at the inn.”
“One as came in with the white horse, genr’l?” Andos said. “Had some terrible tangles that mare did. Ges is working her out in the stables down slope.”
“That’s him. Get a kit and bring it to him. Soap, belt knife, the usual, what we give the recruits.” Xena ordered. “That’ll hold him until we get back.” She said as an aside to Gabrielle. “And bring him a set of camp furs.”
“Genr’l.” Andos put his fist to his chest. “He’s a friend then?”
Xena looked at him and nodded. “He’s family to us.”
“I’ll take care of him, no worries.” The soldier hustled off, heading towards the barracks.
Xena and Gabrielle stood there in silence for a bit, then shook their heads and started off down to the market.
The merchant train was vast, surprising even Gabrielle with it’s long line of wagons and range of merchants with them.
They had come a long way, from the port cities far off and even past Athens, and the first merchant they talked to told them why.
“Ah, ladies.” The man leaned against his wagon. “Athens is soured. Got their purses clenched for now, and said they didn’t want extra around so we took off this way, and will go on through Thrace to see what new markets are to be had.”
“All through the winter?” Gabrielle asked. “That’s tough on you isn’t it?”
“Sure, but we expect we’ll find a spot we can settle in for a few months, over Solstice.” The man said. “Heard there are a few new upstarts through the mountains out there, looking for some action.”
Upstarts. “Mm.. be careful of upstarts.” Xena warned. “They might like your wares, and not want to give up coin for them.”
The merchant shrugged. “Always can happen. In fact, we were told before the pass to watch out for you lot here.” He winked. “Dangerous, that Xena.”
“Yes, she is.” Gabrielle agreed with a mild grin. “That’s exactly what we want people to think matter of fact. Let them stay on their side of the pass.”
One of the townsman came up, and, giving Gabrielle a respectful nod, drew the merchant aside and pointed out a slot in the large and well built square for his wagon.
The wagons would all go against the stockade wall, where there was a overhang that would protect them from the weather. The merchants could choose to sell out of their wagons, or use the booths that were in the center, and off to one side of the square were paddocks for the animals and troughs.
The area had the atmosphere of a carnival, with men and oxen and women and horses crossing every which way, as they showed relief at getting off the road and into a comfortable spot for a while.
“Lot of stuff.” Gabrielle mused.
One side of the market was reserved for merchants from the town, and some were already there setting up their stands, and of course there was a section set aside near the stage for Gabrielle’s Amazons.
There were about a half dozen of them there, in fact, unloading packs and looking around curiously. They spotted Gabrielle and waved, and their queen waved back. She folded her arms and watched a beautiful pair of draft horses move by, sensing the silence at her side after a while and looking up.
Xena was looking off into the distance, her own arms folded. Her profile was quiet and stern, and she was moving her jaw around a little, as though she was nibbling the inside of her lip.
Easy to guess what she was thinking about. Gabrielle shifted closer and put her hand on her partner’s back, then she stiffened as the wagon train meandered to an end and she saw a group of riders behind the last of the transports. “Uh oh.”
“Uh oh?” Xena jerked, then quickly looked around, spotting what her partner had seen after a moment. “Ah. Amazons.”
A dozen women were riding on nondescript horses, wrapped in leathers and bristling with weapons. Xena moved out into the open to get a better look at them, and after a short pause, they all angled towards her, one pointing. “Do we know them?”
“You’re asking me?” Gabrielle studied them. “Looks like trouble, Xe.”
Xena shifted her shoulders and pulled her gloves off. “We should have stayed in bed.”
“If I had a dinar for every time that was true that bed would be made of gold with spun silver sheets.”
Xena leaned against the back wall of the Amazons booth space, watching the group seated at the table inside with an air of mild skepticism, her arms folded and the light from the oil lamp reflecting off the hilt of her sword.
Gabrielle was seated on one side of a makeshift bench pulled up to one of the wares tables with Ephiny and Eponin bracketing her, three of the stranger Amazons were sitting across from them and warriors from both sides filled the rest of the space facing off over their leader’s heads.
“Alana, I understand what you are saying.” Gabrielle hand her hands folded on the table. “I just don’t accept it. You have no claim on us. I’m sorry you lost so many people, but that wasn’t our fault.”
The woman facing her was young, relatively the same age as Gabrielle was. She had short cut black hair and dark eyes and was wearing a queen’s rank tokens, which had a freshly cut look to them. “It doesn’t appear that way to us.” She said, in an even, serious tone. “The witnesses who did return said she saw our queen gutted. She identified the killer as this person.” She indicated Ephiny. “Are you saying she lied?”
Gabrielle looked over at Ephiny, and one eyebrow lifted.
“She didn’t’ lie.” Ephiny said, mildly. “I absolutely killed her.” She said. “Your queen had me tied up and put in stocks and was going to turn me into the Athenian army. For no reason. I was glad to kill her.”
“And if she hadn’t killed her, I would have.” Eponin said, once she was sure Ephiny was done. “We found out what the scam was, from two of your own who ended up coming back with us and joinng our tribe. “
“There wasn’t any scam.” Alana said. “It was a straightforward offer from Athens. We bring them Amazon recruits, they reward us with land, and honors. That’s what our queen was doing and she did it to the best of her ability.”
“Yes.” A second woman sitting next to her said. “We kept our word to our allies in Athens. That includes capturing someone who was going to act against them.”
“Except I wasn’t.” Ephiny said. “I was just, very stupidly, trying to warn you morons you were being played.” She added. “We had Spartans visit Amphipolis right after they left, and they got drunk and spilled that they knew about the Amazons and how Athens were going to use them.”
Gabrielle waited, then nodded. “And that was true. We had information you didn’t, and Ephiny and Eponin risked their lives to follow your queen and let her know it.”
“Spartans! Who says they were telling the truth?” Alana burst out. “How could you believe them?”
“Because they had no reason to lie to us.” Xena said. “They were trying to hire me.”
The stranger Amazons stared at her. “So then you were a traitor.” Alana said.
“I said, they tried.” Xena said. “I turned them down. Just like I turned Athens down. I wanted no part of that fight. I told your queen that.”
“Are you such a treasure then?” Alana said, with more than a touch of skepticism.
Xena and Gabrielle answered at the same time.
“Both Athens and Sparta were told, by the oracles of the gods, that they needed a woman warrior to lead them.” Gabrielle said. “So of course they both wanted Xena, since her leadership of armies is pretty well known in these parts.”
“Thanks to you.” Xena remarked.
“So when they revealed what they knew, Ephiny decided in sisterhood that your queen and the rest of the Amazons gathering for Athen’s war effort, should know.” Gabrielle concluded. “If we truly meant you ill, it would have been a lot easier to just stay here.”
“Last time I do something like that, let me tell ya.” Ephiny said. “So no, Alana, we don’t owe you anything, and even if I had killed her for no reason and in cold blood, you’d only have a claim against me, not against our tribe. I know the law.”
“In fact.” Gabrielle said. “We probably have more of a claim against you, than you do against Ephiny. Your queen was responsible for having her and Eponin locked up. I have a problem with that.”
“We lost over half our tribe, and you have a problem with two people being inconvenienced?” Alana said. “We’re destitute. They took all our resources with them and most of the seasoned warriors. We’re all that’s left.” She indicated the women with her. “I only had the right because I was the only one of the queen’s council left and I only stayed behind because I had a broken leg when they left.”
‘That was their decision.” Gabrielle said, calmly. “Your queen decided to take all those people to war. There was always a chance they all would have died anyway.”
“If they’d gone to war, they likely would have.” Xena stated from her corner. “The Athenians were banking on large field scale war. Army to army, with siege engines. There was no place for Amazons there.”
“We were supposed to be scouts.” The woman looked over at her. “Not infantry or cavalry. You think we’re stupid?”
“No.” Xena shook her head. “I think they lied to you.” She straightened up and walked over to take a spot behind Gabrielle. “There was more behind it than you knew.”
“You could be lying.” Alana said. “It’s all just hearsay. But the fact is, we lost half our tribe. You killed our queen.” She looked at Ephiny. “And I think we have a valid blood claim. We brought our case to the senior council of all the lowland tribes, and they thought so too.”
“Sure, since they were the ones who were going to war.” Gabrielle leaned back a little, feeling the expected warmth as Xena’s hands dropped on her shoulders. “They have no jurisdiction here, in Thrace. Of the tribes here, we’re the largest, and we also have allies.”
The woman looked frustrated. “So you’re saying Amazon law has no hold here?”
Gabrielle shook her head. “I’m saying Amazon law has limited reach.” She stood up. “You can send your council here if you want to, but we, and by that I mean me, and my tribe, do not consider your claim a valid one.” She let her hand rest on Ephiny’s shoulder. “I back what my regent did. I might have done the same thing.”
All of Gabrielle’s Amazons shifted their eyes to her, and Xena’s fingers tightened on her slightly.
Alana studied her. “So you have no sympathy for us?”
Gabrielle regarded her in turn for a moment. “If you’d come here asking for sympathy, rather than blood price, you might have gotten it.”
“That’s what got your queen in trouble. “ Ephiny said. “She felt she was owed everything and what we found out was, she really wanted me and Pony out of the way because she thought we’d horn in on her deal with Athens.”
“That’s not true.”
“It is.” Pony said. “Some of the people with her told us, after it was all over. “
Alana got up and moved around the back of the table. As she did Pony stood up and took a step backwards, bracing her legs and letting a hand rest on her knife hilt.
Cait and Solari took a step forward. Xena merely turned her head and regarded the woman with a faint smile.
“Please don’t do anything stupid.” Gabrielle spoke up. “No one here needs my permission to start kicking ass and they can and will, if for no other reason than to get a few licks in before Xena does.”
Xena chuckled softly under her breath.
‘I wasn’t going to try anything.” Alana said. “As I said before, I am no fool, and your consort’s reputation precedes her. I just wanted to show you this.” She extended her hand, with a scroll in it. “I assume you can read?”
Gabrielle felt the stiffening around her and she accepted the scroll with a brief smile. “Nah, never learned that stuff.” She handed it over her head. “Hon, can you read this for me?”
Xena took it. “Sure. Hope it’s not in Greek though.” She unrolled the scroll and read it silently, while Ephiny half stood to look at it over her shoulder. Gabrielle remained seated, then after a minute she leaned back against Xena’s body, folding her hands over her stomach.
“Anyone got a quill and ink?” Xena asked after a period of silence.
“Sure.” Gabrielle dug in her carrysack and handed up the quill case she carried in it. “Careful, the ink’s new.”
“Its from Athens.” Xena put the scroll down on the table and dipped the quill’s tip in it. She scribbled on the surface for a few minutes, then signed it with a flourish. “They want you to know they ruled that since all their allies got gutted we should pay them off.”
“Oh really?” Gabrielle said. “Did they say they were going to pay us off for going and rescuing Therma, and defeating a Spartan army for them?”
“Didn’t mention it, no.”
“Well then, sweetheart, I think we should remind them.”
“Mmm.. me too.” Her consort agreed. “I told them they should count all that up, and hand it over then we’ll split it with these folks.” Xena handed the scroll back to Alana. “So you go on and take that back. If they’ll make that deal, you’ll get half of what they give us.” She handed the quill back to Gabrielle. ‘Here. Don’t get your fingers dirty.”
Alana read the scroll, then rolled it up and closed her fingers around it. “And if they decide to send soldiers rather than dinars?”
Xena smiled at her. “Then we’ll have a more exciting winter than I figured we would. But chances are they won’t. They know who I am. It’s going to be less expensive for them to pay me off than to come and fight me.”
“And if they do neither?” Alana said. “A council could be called.”
Gabrielle got up and slid her arm around Xena. “If they do neither, you’re back to square one. I don’t mind Xena using her influence to try and shake Athens loose of some coin for you. And they should, since you were going to war for them. But if they don’t, then they don’t. You’re not getting a dinar from us.”
“Then I suppose I will take council with my sisters and the other tribes at home, and we will decide what we will.” Alana said, doing her best to look both strong and dignified. “I didn’t expect to be well received. Our sisters who returned told us of your arrogance.”
“And those who came back here told us of your stupidity, and the selfishness of your tribes, and how horribly you treated our regent and her partner.” Aalene spoke up for the first time, the young Amazon having stayed in her corner next to Cait. “So two can play that game. Take our royal consort’s offer and leave with it. It’s more than you deserve.”
The lowered flap to the tented area they were meeting in was suddenly thrust open, and a tall, grizzled red haired man entered, dressed in leather and metal armor with Xena’s crest on the chest of it. “Genr’l? Weather’s coming in again. We’re putting the shelter up round the area.”
“Thanks Bennu.” Xena said “Make sure all the horses are under cover.”
“Aye.” Bennu touched his chest and then ducked back out.
They could see through the opening that snow was falling again, and Gabrielle could also read the visiting Amazons, seeing the slump in their shoulders and looks of masked discouragement. “You know we’re not total jerks.” She said. “We’d be glad to shelter you here until the weather improves.”
Alana looked like she wanted to turn down the offer just on general principals and Gabrielle waited, to see if sense was going to overcome ego. With warriors, you never knew, but she sensed that Alana had some level of smarts.
Much to her surprise, sense won out. “Thank you.” Alana said. “We’ll stay until it clears. We’re not used to this cold of a season. It very seldom snows where we are from.”
“Your majesty.” Cait came up next to Gabrielle. “There’s the younger’s quarters just emptied. Shall I take them there?”
“Yes, thanks Cait.” Gabrielle smiled at her. “Could you and Paladia please get them settled? We may have a disagreement, but in the end, they’re still our sisters.”
“Right you are.” Cait winked the eye away from where the strangers were. “C’mon Pally.” She eased around Gabrielle. “Could you come with us, please?” She addressed the Amazons. “It’s a bit of a walk.”
The stranger Amazons filed out, not without over the shoulder stares at their putative hosts. Gabrielle kept them mild look on her face until the flap closed behind them, then she turned around to face Xena, banging her pale head against her partner’s chest with a low, growling mutter.
Xena patted her on the back, then circled her with both arms and hugged her both to sooth her aggravation and to stop her from bruising her breastbone. “Easy, slugger.”
Ephiny sighed. “I should have killed them all. Not left any witnesses.” She said, mournfully. “But hey, Aalene – nice little speech there. Good job.”
Aalene smiled. She had always been a very shy girl, but lately her personality had started to develop. Her young daughter was flourishing in the kids group in the village, and was a frequent playmate of Dori’s. “I can’t believe they came here and tried to say we owed them anything. That’s terrible.”
“Jerks.” Pony shook her head. “They live too close to Athens. All that hot air gets into them.” She walked over and peeked out the flap. “Think it was a good idea to take them up to the village?” She asked. “Specially with them talking crap about bringing people here to kick our asses.”
Ephiny exhaled. “I thought about that.” She admitted. “But I think Gabrielle is hoping maybe we can turn them around a little. Wouldn’t have a chance if we refused them hospitality and made them bunk in here.” She looked around at the little booth. “Not that I don’t think they deserve to sleep on straw.”
Gabrielle turned around and leaned back against Xena’s tall form. ‘Yeah. I wanted them to walk through fortified Amphipolis, through the back gates, and up that long path through our entryway. If that doesn’t put them off the stupidity of a bunch of tree fighters trying to attack us nothing will.”
Pony shrugged, glancing at Xena, who was standing there in all her tall and black leather covered glory with her long arms draped over Gabrielle’s shoulders. “I’m guessing it won’t take that much.” She said. “They seem like puppies.”
“We were all puppies once.” Xena kept her eyes straight ahead and resisted the urge to look down. “Typical of that bunch though, to go to Athens to solve their problems.”
“What if they do send troops?” Aalene asked, after a brief silence.
“They won’t.” Xena smiled lazily. “Not for this. There’s no percentage in it for them, and there are enough people in that army that know they might end up losing more troops to defection than arrows.”
Gabrielle was also smiling, and now she tilted her head back to look up at her partner. “Not to mention, they’d have to march in the middle of winter.” She concluded. “But who knows? Maybe everyone will act like a grownup this time and they’ll just hand over some dinars.”
“Maybe.” Xena agreed. “So let’s get out of here and let the merchants set up.” She rested her chin on Gabrielle’s head. “I want to see if any of these travelers saw the slavers that hit that old soldier of mine’s village.”
They moved out of the sheltered area, Pony and Aalene pulling back the hide flaps that had given them a bit of privacy and tying them in place, clearing the entrance for the waiting group of Amazons with bundles and crates in their arms. “All yours.” Pony said, stepping out of the way.
“Thanks.” Nala was the first to enter, putting her box down on the table inside. “All okay? I saw Cait heading up with a bunch of strange Amazons.”
“They were strange Amazons all right.” Aalene said. “Fill you in later.”
“Always something.” Nala shook her head. “Hope all those people the watch reported on the way here get to cover.”
Xena turned. “More than just the merchant train?”
Nala nodded. “Just heard it coming down to the bridge. Guards said they saw three, maybe four groups on foot heading down the road.”
“Huh.” Xena grunted. “Maybe they heard about the market.”
“Could be.” Nala agreed. “We sent word out last sevenday.” She turned and went to her boxes, starting to remove the various things they’d made to sell. Six or seven others had crowded in with her, smiling despite the weather as they started to set up the tables.
Das and Renas were there, Das showing off a pair of ear cuffs to Nala who whistled in response. Xena edged closer and peered at them, then returned her attention outside as Gabrielle tugged on her cloak. “Yes?”
“Let’s go see what there is to be seen.” The bard said. “I see there’s a tanner setting up over there.”
The light snow was dusting their cloaks with silver as they moved away from the shelter and paused as a group to study the square.
Soldiers were thick on the ground, moving to put wood and hide panels in place to provide shelter for the wagons and stalls, though many of the merchants were heading up to the performance building, a thick stone and wood structure build on top of a low platform.
“Lookit that.” One of the merchants said, rubbing his hands briskly as he walked. “Putting up roofs for us. I like it. Them folks has it together here.”
“They do.” His companion agreed. “Value the market, even if it’s all women in charge.”
Both of them laughed, passing by the group of cloaked Amazons who watched them go by, then laughed themselves.
“Shows how much they know.” Gabrielle said. “Women value markets way more than men do.”
“Until they’re out of something.” Ephiny said. “C’mon, Pon. We’ll go see what gossip we can dig up.” She and Eponin strolled off, as Gabrielle and Xena along with Solari and Aalene headed off towards the shelter.
“Let’s see if anyone’s heard anything on the road about slavers.” Xena said, as they mounted the steps to the performance stage. “See if I can help out that old soldier of mine.”
“Then the tanner.” Gabrielle said. “Those boots are falling apart on you.”
“You run me ragged in them.” Xena said, with a mock sigh. “I’m kept so busy doing the queen’s bidding.”
They all chuckled, entering the shelter and leaving the snow behind.
Cait kept a decorous pace as she led the visitors through Amphipolis. She waved at the soldiers who were moving in the opposite direction from her, heading through the town towards the military barracks.
The soldiers all knew her, and she knew them, and despite the weather they seemed quite cheerful as they moved towards the front of the town.
“Lot of soldiers.” Alana commented.
“Oh yes.” Cait agreed. “They’ve got a whole area of new housing they’re building down slope to hold all the new recruits. Quite nice fellows.”
“Is Xena building an army?” The Amazon asked.
“Of course.” Cait indicated the lane that lead to the big gates. “She has been for quite some time, but now she’s got things properly rolling.”
“Hello Cait!” Eustance was coming up the path, from the side lane she lived on in her small, but snug hut. “Are you and the rest coming down for dinner?”
“Yes.” Cait said. “I’m just going to get this lot settled, then Pally and I are going to bring down some of her pictures.”
Paladia, who had been lounging along in the rear of the group, snorted slightly.
Eustace waved and they went on towards the gate. The soldiers spotted them and swung the portal open, giving Cait and Paladia respectful waves as they went through.
Alana glanced behind them as the gates swung shut. “So you don’t live in the village?”
“Gosh no.” Cait pointed at the steep path that started where the path ended. “Much too noisy there, right Pally?”
“Yup.” Paladia agreed. “Living down here’d be too easy. We gotta hike up half a damn mountain to where we bunk.”
“It’s good exercise.” Cait said.
“That what Xena says?” Her partner asked. “Saw her bouncing up there yesterday like a rubber ball. ‘S’where that freaknig kid gets it from.”
They started up the path. Over the last couple of moons they’d driven posts and ropes to guide a way up, and in the really steep places they’d dug out steps so the way was easier than it had been.
Everyone gave a different excuse for that. Paladia was glad enough to bring up the rear end, watching the stranger Amazons struggle their way up. She’d heard someone say it was for the elders, and then others for the kids, and then someone said it was for Ephiny since she was pregnant.
Paladia wasn’t sure why they had to be such idiots sometimes. Lining a steep path was a freaking sensible idea and it made her crazy that everyone pretended they’d rather it hadn’t been done.
“Amphipolis is Xena’s home town.” Cait was explaining upt there at the front. “That big inn we passed is her mother’s and her brother lives here too.”
Paladia rolled her eyes.
The Amazons were looking around at the mountainside as they climbed steadily upward, passing the now frozen over spring that usually ran down the side of the path, steps crunching slightly on the snow coated stones.
The trees still had leaves on their branches, and as they got up into them the wind cut down and it became more comfortable to walk. Paladia spotted a fox scooting out of the way, and squirrels were scrambling around the trunks storing nuts away industriously.
They met a line of their own Amazons coming down the path most carrying boxes or bundles. Each greeted them with amiable waves, and they also gave the strangers a wary stare.
Cait got up the last steps to the mid level plateau in the path, already raising a reassuring hand to the watch that were already coming out to meet them. “It’s all right, you lot. Just some visitors.”
The watch, ginger haired Dosi and her sister Amalia studied the newcomers, then stepped back and cleared the way into the village. The newly built gates were swung open, and Cait passed inside and then up the slight rise with a faint smile on her face.
“Home sweet home.” Paladia commented.
“Yes, coming along nicely.” Cait indicated a side path. “We just had a graduation so there are empty beds in that hut.”
“Were you one of the graduates?” Alana asked.
“Nah.” Paladia answered for her. “She was born a crone.”
“Pally.” Cait gave her a severe look. “Stop that.” She turned to Alana. “I graduated years ago from juniors. I got my senior’s rank last season.” She opened the door to the younger’s quarters, a hut intended for six to eight people that was now empty. “Here you go.”
The Amazons filed inside, setting down their carrysacks and picking out bunks. “Thanks.” Alana said. “We appreciate it. Is there a… ah, that’s the bathing hut?” She pointed across the square.
“Yes.” Cait replied. “And the dining hall is next to it. As Queen Gabrielle said you were guests, please do make yourselves comfortable.” She said. “Most of the tribe will be down at the market, but they’ll have supper on at sundown.”
The Amazons were nodding a little and looking around, seeming surprised but pleased. “Thank you.” One of the others said to Cait. “This is nice.”
“Right. We’re off.” Cait replied. “That hut right there, that’s the guard shelter. If you need anything ask in there. I’ll let them know you’re in here.” She lifted her hand and waved, then started off towards the shelter, pulling her hood up against the snow.
“Seem like a box of pricks.” Paladia commented, as they trudged over the frosty ground. “Snoots in the air, because they’re from the big city.”
“Did you hear them ask Queen Gabrielle if she knew how to read?” Cait said. “Too right! Snoots!’
“Yeah, thought it was funny her nibs pretended she didn’t. “ Paladia sniggered. “She’s all like, hey Xena read this for me willya?”
They ducked inside the guard hut and let the thick hide flap fall down behind them. Inside there were oil lamps and in the back a snug fireplace that was crackling merrily. “Hello.”
“Hey, Cait.” A ginger headed scout was seated near the fire, warming her hands. “Just came in from the ridge, all’s quiet.”
“Great.” Cait said. “So listen up? The Queen and regent sent up a pack of visitors from one of those awful tribes near Athens.”
“She did? What for?” The other Amazon in the room was cleaning a crossbow, and she looked over her shoulder at them. “Those guys? The ones that dissed Ephiny and Eponin?”
“Yes” Cait said. “They came to accuse us of some quite silly things, and really, I think the queen wanted to boot them down the road but it started to snow again.”
“And she took pity on em.” Bella, the Amazon near the fire said. “Figures.”
Paladia was leaning against the wall, content to wait for Cait to finish her political wrangling. “Nah.” She spoke up. “Nibs probably wants to give that bunch an eyeful so they don’t go back to the big city thinking we’re helpless gitwads.”
Cait turned and gave her a very pleased look. “Well done, Pally.”
“Probably have Xena beat up a couple dozen of those soldiers to nail the idea.” Paladia added placidly. “The nutcase made sure they saw every battling butt in the town on the way up here.”
“Pally.” Cait gave her partner an exasperated look.
“We’ll keep an eye on them.” Bella said. “You put them in the crib?”
Cait nodded. “Told them where the baths and food are. So likely they’ll be wandering.”
“Right.” Cait lifted her hand. “We’re off back to the market.”
The two of them left the shelter and headed across the big central square, crossing to the slightly sloping path behind the gathering hall to a clearing surrounding by trees and brush that held the small hut that was theirs.
Newly built, it still smelled of curing wood and stone, and the wood floors were raw and creaked under their weight. It had a bed big enough for the two of them against one wall, a small fireplace, a worktable against the other wall with a stool next to it, and another longer worktable with weapons piled on every square inch.
It didn’t have much personality yet, but on the bed was a thick quilt with rich colors and in the corner of the long table, where the two walls met there was a carved wooden wolf.
Paladia went over to the shorter worktable. “Sure we want to go back down there?” She asked. “Weather sucks.”
Cait went over to the window and opened the shutters, peering out. The clouds were darkening overhead, and she pondered the question. She was not on duty as Gabrielle’s personal guard today – when Xena was around there wasn’t any need.
So she was free to stay in the village, or go back down to town. Either would be an acceptable choice but she could feel a pricking of her nape hairs, and nodded quietly to herself. “We’ll stay here a bit.” She said. “Want to go have a bit to eat in the hall?”
“You just see those nitwads going there?”
Cait chuckled under her breath.
The large wooden structure was already busy, full of traders and townsfolk, mingling in good humor as they traded news and kept out of the weather.
Xena was seated on a bench, one boot propped up onto it as she leaned back against the wooden wall behind her. “Sounds like the roads are busy.”
The tall, bearded merchant seated across from her nodded. “Say that, Xena.” He agreed. “I was surprised, you know? I expected most of the usual lot to be holed up for winter already.”
On one side of the big room some of Cyrene’s staff had set up a cook stove, using the fireplace built into the back corner, and they’d put three or four barrels in place with a plank or two atop them, forming a makeshift bar.
“I expected the same.” Xena said. “Did you see anything unusual? We’ve seen some refugees coming in, and one of them mentioned he was trailing a bunch of slavers.”
The trader’s head was already nodding as she spoke. “We heard it. Stopped just short of the pass, at a small town there. Knew you.” He picked up a mug and took a sip from it.
“Binns?” Xena hazarded a guess.
“The very one. He said there were two women who’d just come through said they’d just gotten loose of a bunch who’d been picking up people, said they were on the way through Thrace to sell em.”
“What happened to them?” Xena asked. “The women, I mean?”
“Don’t know. Binns said they were headed down Therma way, and we were going on. Said to send his regards. But we also heard, from a wanderer just outside Potadeia that a couple youngsters were missing from there, and he said he’d seen a wagon going past down river.”
“Towards here?” Xena’s brows lifted.
“Past here more likely. Them’s that want to start trouble steer clear of this town.” He winked at Xena. “That’s why we were glad to stop. It’s safe here.”
Xena lifted her mug and accepted the compliment gracefully. “I’m pretty sure no slaver wagon stopped anywhere near here, but I don’t think any wagon went past either. Watch would have seen it.”
“Probably not, but I don’t think they’d risk lingering around here either not between here and Potadeia. I saw your outpost there.” The trader said. “We stopped a few days. Nice bunch there, glad they rebuilt that town.”
“Me too, Malus. I have extended family there.” Xena caught sight of Gabrielle entering, the bards distinctive figure easing through the crowd and heading for the bar. “Gabrielle’s family lives there. It’s her birth town.”
“They said.” Malus smiled briefly. “Seemed proud of her, matter of fact. Wanted us to know that famous bard came from there.”
Xena smiled back, the somewhat mixed history they had with her partner’s birthplace flashing through her mind’s eye. “They give you good business?”
“Middling.” Malus said. “It’s still a small spot, you know? So far we’ve unloaded more here since we rolled up than two days there.” He stretched back, and looked approving as his wife brought over a bowl of steaming stew and a platter of bread. “Ah, that smells great.”
“It does.” His wife, a brown haired woman with unusual purplish eyes sat down next to them. “It’s your mother’s cooking, isn’t it, Xena? She’s got the inn up there still?”
“She does, and yes, it’s her stew. I can recognize the spices from here.” Xena’s eyes twinkled a little. “But to be completely honest with you, I think my partner can do better.” She looked up and past them as Gabrielle arrived at the table, putting down a square of wood with a big bowl and a split loaf between them. “Speaking of.”
“Speaking of what?” Gabrielle got the bread buttered and handed her half. “Hi there, Malus, and.. Irene?”
The woman smiled. “That’s myself.”
“Welcome to Amphipolis.” She took a bite “Glad you got here before the weather totally went downhill.”
“They just came through Potadeia.” Xena told her, nibbling on her bread. “You’re famous there, y’know.”
Gabrielle gave her a droll look.
“And Binns, at Hillsgate said they heard word of those slavers. Seems they lost a few of them who were headed back the other direction.”
“Weird thing was.. “ Irene said. “From what we heard, they were taking or said they were taking what they caught through Thrace for sale. Couldn’t figure out why? What market is there for that in the outlands?”
“Maybe they’re not.” Xena said. “Could be heading for the same port city the Spartans invaded through. Send them overseas.”
“Why not just go through Therma, then?” Malus said. “Seems like a long route to take to get a ship, though we also heard there been storms off the coast there, and some wrecks.”
“We heard that too.” Gabrielle said. “Recently. A friend of ours is here, said he was in an awful wreck, and rumors were that Poseidon was mad at someone.”
Irene was nodding as she talked. “More than that, one of the sailors off that ship was in Hillsgate inn, and he was telling everyone that Hercules – you know him?”
“We know him.” Gabrielle and Xena spoke at once.
“That he steered the ship into the wreck, and then abandoned everyone.” Irene said. “Shocked I was!”
Gabrielle finished chewing a mouthful of stew and swallowed it, sensing the narrowing of her soulmate’s eyes without effort. “That doesn’t sound right. I know Hercules. He wouldn’t have done that if people were in danger if he’d had a choice.”
Irene eyed her doubtfully. “Since when do the gods care about the likes of us? Or ratty sailors?”
“Herc does.” Xena spoke up. “If he vanished, he vanished for a reason.”
Malus looked skeptical. “Be as may.” He inclined his head towards them. “You likely know better than I , but he left that mortal friend of his holding the bag, and the ship captain’s got the law looking for him to pay off the passage.”
“Offering a reward.” Irene said. “So if you seen him, might want to make yourself a dinar or so.”
“We’ll keep it in mind.” Xena got up, wiping her bread in the remains of her partner’s stew and popping it into her mouth. “Enjoy the chow. I’m guessing we’ll see better weather tomorrow morning.”
She ruffled Gabrielle’s hair. “I’ll be at the tanners.” She said. “Remember to pick up some shirts.”
Gabrielle nodded. “Meet you there.”
Irene and Malus waited until Xena had cleared the door, then leaned closer. “So, Gabrielle, tell us what we have to look forward to tonight? One of your tales? Heard some of the players in town talking about it.”
Gabrielle grinned briefly. “A new one, yeah.” She said. “About the last tussle we had. It’s got a lot of action, I think people will like it.”
“Surely… “ Irene said. “And now we’ll tell you the real gossip of the road.” She said. “Therma was full of the news, that mighty Zeus has abandoned some of his children, and sent them down here to live amongst us.”
Gabrielle paused in mid spoonful, then put the instrument down. “Oh really?”
“And we heard the oracles say, the first to find them, will be rewarded by the ruling council in Athens.” Malus said, his eyes glittering. “So I’m keeping my eyes open. You seen two women wanderers, looking to hide?”
“No.: The bard shook her head. “All news to me.”
“Thousand dinars, Gabrielle.” Irene nudged her arm. “Pay for a lot of hides, right?”
“Right.” Gabrielle handed her bowl off to one of Cyrene’s servers. “Speaking of, let me go make sure she’s not picking purpled dyed ones.” She got up. “Thanks for the news.”
“Peace to you.” Malus waved genially, watching as the bard headed purposefully off through the crowd, heading for the door. “Nice gal.”
“No airs.” His wife agreed. “I can see where she’d not like purple, right? Royal color. Like what those women were wrapped in.”
“Back in Hillsgate? Bit arrogant those were, for being escaped slaves.”
“Not nice at all.”
The tanner was doing a very brisk business, despite the weather. His wagon, which had a sturdy top that extended out for shelter had at least a dozen people gathered around it, all peering at well cured skins, some from far off and strange to their eyes.
Amphipolis had goats and sheep, pigs and horses. The cows they raised in the area though were mostly milk cows, and the town wasn’t known for quality leather.
A bit irritating, now that they had a fairly decent size army in their midst, most of whom wore a combination of metal and leather armor.
But Xena knew better than most that the hilly, and then mountainous terrain that made up her homeland wasn’t really suited for cattle in great numbers so she’d reconciled herself to finding the raw material for her protective wear elsewhere.
This traveling tanner seemed a likely source. She edged around the back of the crowd, her height allowing her to inspect the skins without pushing herself forward. Aside from the boots she was contemplating, she had an idea for a new set of body armor she wanted to try.
“That’s right fellas.. “The tanner’s eyes lifted. “And er.. ma’am.” He grinned briefly, as the crowd turned to see who he was talking to and rapidly got out of the way. “Some of these I picked up on the borderlands. Wont see them often.”’
Xena strolled forward through the now open gap and ducked her head to get under the shelter next to the wagon. She lowered her cloak’s hood as she entered, and shook the covering of snow off her shoulders. “Which border?”
“Epirus, over the mountains.” The tanner smiled at her hiked eyebrows. “Ah, don’t think me so bold. I bought them off a trader on this side before I headed east.”
Xena stepped to one side and examined the hides. There were the usual, but also a thicker skin she ran her hands over. “These from there?”
The tanner nodded. “Said they were mountain cattle. Used to cold weather.”
His customer nodded. “I’ll take this one.” She draped the hide over one of the iron bars extending from the wagon. “And these two.” She selected a dark brown natural skin and a pelt of thick russet red fur. “
“Nothing in purple.” A lighter voice intruded, and a moment later Gabrielle was at her side, a bundle wrapped in her arms. “Ah. Just in time to bargain for you.” She bumped Xena’s hip with her elbow, and smiled when she saw the swiftly hidden look of dismay on the tanner’s face. “C’mon, I’m not that bad am I?”
The crowd chuckled a little, then gingerly edged forward to resume examining the skins now that Xena had made her selection.
‘What’s this for?” Gabrielle touched the thicker hide. “It’s knobbly a little.”
“Underlay for my new armor.” Her partner said. “It’ll stand up to the shaping better I think. I put holes in the regular hide.”
“Then I don’t’ care what it costs.” Gabrielle said. “It’s worth anything to keep your skin in one piece, my love.”
Xena blushed a tad, and wrinkled her nose. But she smiled anyway and turned her head to regard a beautifully stitched carrybag hanging about head high on the wagon. “Hm.” She pondered, half listening to Gabrielle’s bargaining while she imagined the bag hanging on her partner’s shoulder.
Catching the tanner’s eye, she held up a coin, and pointed to the bag, raising her eyebrows in question. He quickly nodded, and she stuck the coin in a crack in the wagon’s side, taking the bag down and looping it over Gabrielle’s head.
“Wait.” Gabrielle looked around in confusion. “What’s this?”
“A present.” Her partner told her. “I’m going to the next wagon. Need some new saddle blankets.” She winked at the tanner and ducked past under the shelter, putting her hood up as she emerged again into the snowfall.
The mood around her was relaxed and jovial, she noted. Most or all of the wagons had attentive shoppers around them, most of the town and her own troops were browsing and eager to pick up necessities and the small luxuries the merchant train offered.
“Hello, Xena.” One of the town councilmen matched his steps to hers. “Nice market.”
“It is.” She agreed, as they neared the cloth merchant, who was doing a brisk business. “People here have dinars, and are willing to spend. Makes everyone happy.”
“Yes.” He nodded. “Things are turning around again. I was just speaking to Wilfan about extending the borders again, down to the river up to the forest line. What do you think?”
“Exactly. They can put some living space up near the trees at the top of the slope, then put crops in below. That way if she floods, it brings the land back.”
Xena nodded. “That’s the right idea.”
“We’ll do this right this time, Xena.” He said. “I think about how we were thinking before, and I can’t believe it.” He shook his head. “It was almost like we were blinded. I remember that meeting we had, when they were going to go to Athens? It was an insanity.”
“Yeah.” Xena thought about that. “Everyone’s in a better frame of mind now.” She mused. “Maybe it’s just the hard times we’ve been through.”
“Was a bunch that was angry about the valley.” The councilman admitted. “But truth is, been there a long while and not a one of us touched it. No one cared when it was ceded - those women worked hard to get it open.”
“They did.” Xena said, nodding slowly. “And they’ve been spreading it out to the town, for getting things done up there. Everyone benefits.”
“Exactly.” He said, nodding emphatically. “Stone work, and timber, and all those provisions now, and they’ve started trading what they hunt with us. Looks like they’ll be good neighbors after all.” He lifted a hand. “Good speaking with you, Xena.. I’m off to get a pretty for my wife. Enjoy the market.”
Xena slowly came to a halt, standing in the path with her arms folded as she considered what she’d just heard.
She looked around, watching the groups of people fill the market square, with smiles on faces, and laughter on the air and tried to gauge what it was that was so different. No one was dressed fancy, or were flashing jewelry, her soldiers were there in their sturdy leather armor and plain waxed cloaks.
The Amazons were scattered around, enjoying a skin of wine, or talking to the townsfolk.
“You bucking for a statue?”
Xena turned to find Toris there, watching her with a wry smile. “First thing I hear of that I’ll have my horse down here pulling it down into the river. “ She warned. “No, I was just… “ She looked around. “Everyone just seems sort of contented for a change.”
“Ah, you noticed that too.” Her brother stood next to her, and adopted her folded arm pose. “Gran was saying that over breakfast. Said it was so damn nice to have people not be grumpy as a default anymore.”
“No kidding.” A memory suddenly came into Xena’s mind and she paused to savor it.
Long day, long dark night. They were sheltered in a forest grove, protected from the strong winds and light rain, with a small fire but there was a pot on it with stew almost ready, and fresh trail bread cooking on a hot stone nearby.
It smelled good.
Xena was sprawled on her furs head resting on Argo’s saddle, sewing on a piece of fabric. Gabrielle was laying next to her, quill in one hand, the other propping her head up as she studied a piece of parchment in front of her.
Aside from the wind it was quiet. In the next glade, the sound of Argo pulling up mouthfuls of grass could be heard, and just past that the musical sound of a fast running creek. Xena looked up into the sky, and then returned her attention to her task, a smile on her face.
It was good to be dry, and comfortable, with a good dinner to be had. Her eyes had drifted to Gabrielle’s firelit profile. And a good friend at her side.
A good friend, and a friendship that had suddenly become comfortable, as though they’d traveled through a crossroads neither had been aware of until times like this when it was just them, and the night, and a pair of furs side by side.
“Ready for dinner?” Gabrielle asked, setting her quill down.
“Whenever you are.” Xena replied, eyes on her work, stretching out her legs and crossing them at the ankles. “Thank the gods for both of us that you’re the cook.”
Gabrielle laughed easily, rolling over and sitting up. “Thank the gods for both of us that you can sew.” She retorted. “Otherwise I’d have to go around looking like a ragpicker.”
‘Nah, I’d just steal some new ones for ya.” Xena chuckled. Then she glanced up to see Gabrielle just sitting there quietly, a gentle smile on her face, her eyes shifted off and unfocused. She waited a moment, then cleared her throat. “Whatcha thinking about?”
Gabrielle looked up and their eyes met. “It just feels so good to feel good, you know?” She said. “We’re just here, and we’re happy and I’m not worried abou.. “ She paused “About anything.”
For a moment they merely studied each other in unhurried contentment. Then Xena smiled and nodded. “Yeah, you’re right. It does feel good.”
Looking back Xena remembered that bodily feeling of ease, the lack of tension across her shoulders and she nodded a bit to herself. ‘Yeah, it feels nice. Everyone getting what they need, what they want a little.”
‘Hey, speaking of.” Toris turned to her. “One of the merchants who came in this morning knows that bunch of goats your Amazons brought in.”
“Knows, or thinks they want?” Xena gave him a wry look.
“Didn’t want them, but said they’d seen them heading towards Therma a few weeks back, with four or five herders with them taking them to market.”
Xena frowned. “How could they tell it’s the same goats?”
“Long hair, and markings. The trader’s from a herding family.” Her brother said, briefly. “Wonder how they got all the way back here?”
“Or what happened to their herders.” Xena said. “C’mon, let’s get out of the snow.” She pointed at a small wagon where a woman was stirring a pot of hot cider, the scent wafting out into the central area. “Well for now, finder’s keepers. Gab’s going to have the Amazons try to get them up to the village.”
“Oh boy. That should be hilarious. Let me tell Gran so she can go watch.”
The bathing room was quiet, with most of the tribe down in the market. Cait briskly toweled herself off, keeping the visitors in her peripheral vision as they finished up their bathing.
They were keeping her in their view as well, and she caught their slightly widened eyes at what she thought surely was her delightful collection of scars. She was proud of them, those marks, especially the arrow wound whose cauterized surface stood out against her skin.
They showed she had done things, without her having to talk about them. She wiped out her ears carefully then slung the piece of fabric around her neck and went to let the water out of the tub she’d used.
The warmed water had felt very good. In the old bathing hut, there were buckets that would have to be brought in after being dipped in the cold stream and you would have to wait for them to warm, before dumping them into the tubs.
Tedious, actually. For the new setup, Xena had shown them how she got water into her cabin, and between them all they’d managed to sort that out. Once that was done, they’d built a basin right up against the fireplace and Dosi had figured out a clever spigot thing that kept water coming into the basin and being warmed.
Lovely. Cait couldn’t imagine why they hadn’t thought of it before. Really once Xena had explained it it the whole thing had seemed quite obvious. She toweled her hair dry and then ran a comb through it, all the while keeping an eye on the other women.
“This is pretty nice, for the sticks.” Alana said, loud enough for her to hear it.
“Much nicer than Athens actually.” Cait responded blandly. “I didn’t much care for that place at all.” She walked over to where her leathers were hanging.
“You’ve been to Athens?” One of the other woman asked, in a skeptical tone.
“Certainly.” Cait got her wraps in place and turned to face them, putting her hands on her hips. “I was there guarding Queen Gabrielle when she won that big bard competition last season. It was terribly grubby in spots.”
“She won a bard competition?” Alana asked. “In Athens?”
“Of course.” Cait took her leggings off the peg and slipped into them, tying off the belt that held them on. “It was lovely, really. The contest, I mean. Her majesty was the last one to go, and everyone simply loved her story.”
She pulled her leather vest over her head and started lacing it up, aware of the doubtful stares directed towards her. She adjusted the fit and smoothed the edges down over her hips, pleased with the new garment.
“I’ve never heard of an Amazon winning a bard competition in Athens.” Alana said. “Sounds like a cock and bull story to me.”
The rest of them laughed.
“Well.” Cait started seating her daggers. “She didn’t enter the contest as an Amazon, of course. She used her birthplace name. Gabrielle of Potadeia.” She finished arming and picked up the sword belt hanging on the wall. “They certainly knew who she was in Athens. When she got up on stage, everyone quite gasped.”
“Ah.” Alana said. “So that’s who she is, really. “ She sniffed a little. “Figures. Yeah, I heard of her, but we spent most of our time hunting – we didn’t have time to listen to children’s tales.”
“They aren’t.” Cait said. “But I’m sure you’ll hear one or two tonight and you can decide for yourself.” She swung the sword harness over her head and settled it into place. “Careful though, or you might end up in one.”
It felt wonderful to buckle on that sword. Cait felt herself straighten under the weight on it, only just preventing herself from drawing it and admiring it’s long and well hammered length.
Gabrielle had given it to her. It was the sword Xena had made for her during the war, and that she’d never used save to face off against her last challenge. It was beautifully made, and looked quite like Xena’s and she’d been overwhelmed when she’d been given it.
Just really overwhelmed. It was just the best thing ever.
“Yeah, thanks for the warning.” Alana said. “I guess that’s why she thinks Athens is going to give two craps about her. Or that big ape she’s with.”
Cait stopped moving. She turned her head to regard Alana with her pale, gray eyes that had suddenly gone to ice. “Excuse me. You didn’t actually just mean Xena there, did you?”
“Yeah.” Alana said. “How in the Hades does she get out of her own way?”
For a moment, she rode the blade. Cait could feel the fury erupt inside her, sending a flush of blood to her skin and almost making her a bit lightheaded. Her body tensed and she felt the hair on the back of her neck lift a little, as she scented blood just on the edge of her perceptions.
They’re guests. A voice sounded firmly in her head. You can’t just kill them.
She let out her breath and felt her fingers relax. “Well, I suppose you’ll have to form your own opinion there as well.” She said. “Excuse me.”
Several more members of the tribe chose that moment to enter, giving Cait a casual wave, and giving the visitors a stony once over. “Hey Cait.” Pasi said. “You up for some sparring later? In the big hall?”
“Absolutely.” Cait put her cloak on, and set the hood up to cover her still wet hair. “Maybe if we’re lucky Xena will come up before supper and join us.”
“Lucky.” Pasi grimaced. “Yeah, maybe you’re lucky. My kneecap’s still bent from that last kick she gave me.” The young Amazon stripped out of her cloak and hung it up. “Gonna soak it right now in fact.”
Cait and Pasi exchanged brief glances, then Cait lifted her hand in farewell and went outside.
She walked several paces into the snowy central ground, then she stopped and exhaled, her breath forming a fog. “Absolute git wads. “ She pronounced firmly, shaking herself to release the last of her battle tension.
“Ok, right. “ She headed off again in he direction of the gathering hall, then paused when she saw a pack of children racing across the central area, all of them giggling.
“Hm.” Cait changed direction. “Hello? Hello, you there!”
The leader of the tiny rabble paused and looked around. “Cat!” Dori pointed at her. “S’go! Get Cat!” She headed towards Cait and the rest of them followed, some pausing to stamp on the snow and laugh.
“What are you lot up to?” Cait asked, as Dori skidded to a halt next to her.
“Cat! Look!” Dori opened her hands, revealing a snowball. “We’re gonna make dem cold.” She pointed at the bathing hall. “Wanna come?”
“Dori, that’s very mean.” Cait managed to wrestle a smile off her face. “Who told you that you could do that?”
Of course. “Xena told you to throw ice at those people?”
“Yes.” Dori said, with utmost confidence. “Boo said.”
Cait put her hood down. “Well then absolutely. Let’s go.” She scooped up a handful of snow and motioned the kids forward. “Ho ho ho.”