Body Heart and Soul

Part 23 (End)

Xena was sitting on the edge of their bed with her elbows resting on her knees, nursing a wooden cup of tea clasped lightly between her hands.  She was once again dressed in a shift, though this one was blue, and newly bought at the fair before they’d left.

A quick run to town and barracks had left her puzzled but happy. The army had settled back into their barracks, very glad to be home, though their losses were intact and the healer’s longhouse was busy with injuries and some frostbite.

Wagons had been put up, horses and oxen were in their barns,  and her mother had taken the time to assure her they’d come marching in last night triumphant, or didn’t she believe her?

Triumphant.  Well.  Xena shook her head a little. They had defeated pretty much everything they’d encountered so yes, she supposed they were triumphant in that regard but the thought of the men lost, the pain suffered ate at her.

However. With a sigh, she reconciled herself to paying out the troops in the morning, and moving on with their lives.

Faint crunching caught her attention and she turned her head as the door opened and Gabrielle came inside.    She hung her cloak up and stripped off her gauntlets, dropping them onto one of the low tables before walking over to the fire and warming her hands over it.

Xena got up and crossed the floor over to her, silently unbuckling the belt holding her thick overtunic closed and removing it.

She could see the reflection from the fire outlining Gabrielle’s face, and the pensive expression on it, and she untied the front lacing, edging a little around to the side as she parted the fabric, her fingertips brushing the skin underneath.  

Gabrielle’s expression shifted a little, and she lifted her eyes to Xena’s as her clothing was gently removed,  a faint smile appearing as her partner stepped around behind her and kissed the back of her neck.

No words needed, really.

Xena folded the tunic up and put it on their garment press, coming back over with a finely woven woolen shift she replaced it with.  She gave Gabrielle a tiny nibble on her ear, then she retreated back to the bed, resuming her seat on it, crooking  a finger at her partner in silent appeal.

Gabrielle came over and sat down next to her partner and they quietly regarded each other for a few minutes in silence. “Something really weird happened to us.”  Gabrielle finally said.  “I mean, weirder than usual.”

Given the scope and breadth of what they’d been through together that was indeed a statement, and Xena gave it due regard.  “Well.” She cleared her throat a little.  “We all remember pretty much the same thing. Us and the army.” She said. “And we sent a messenger up to the valley to make sure Jess got back all right.”

“Mm.”

“And the town remembers pretty much the same thing.” Xena continued. “It’s just that what they remember and what we remember for the last day is completely different. We know we didn’t march in here last night. We didn’t march anywhere last night.”

“Mm.” Gabrielle grunted agreement. Then she hiked one knee up and rested her elbow on it. “Hey Xe?”

“Mm?”

“Let’s just go to bed. We’ll talk about it in the morning.”  She stifled a yawn. “Nothing we can do about it right now anyway.”

They got under the covers and let out twin sighs.   Gabrielle felt the warmth from the fire, and from the covers soaking through her.  She reached out and felt for Xena’s hand, curling her fingers around it and feeling the tension returned.

She felt very unsettled.  “It was the gods, right?”

“Thought we were waiting for tomorrow?”

Gabrielle sighed.  “It keeps going around and around in my head.”

“Had to be.” Xena replied, after a brief pause. “Something happened, and they put us all back for some reason.” She wriggled a little into the soft down cover of the bed, glad to allow her body to relax, glad of the warmth, and the comfort of their home.  “Not gonna argue.”

“No.”

“We must of done something right.”  Xena said. “They could have left us all there. Just popped out and we’d be in that cave, freezing our butts off.”

Gabrielle considered that. “That’s a point.”  She replied. “Not only did they put us back, they put us back where we belonged, assuming Jess is, and we were in our bed, with our kid here with us.”

“True.”

“So why do I feel so weird?”

Xena chuckled softly. “We’re so used to them screwing us over.”  She said.  “It’s always us on the wrong side of things, suffering, getting our ass kicked, you name it.  Whether we do things right or not.”

“Mm.”

‘So what did we do this time that was so right that we got this favor?”  Xena shrugged a little. “Maybe your story did it.  I liked it.” She paused. “Hey, I just remembered – Ares was asking me where you heard that story.”

“I didn’t hear it anywhere.”  Gabrielle rolled onto her side, and tucked herself into her accustomed spot on Xena’s shoulder.  “I made it all up.”

Xena’s eyes opened up wide and she regarded the neatly timbered roof of their cabin. “Uh.. what?”

“I made it up.”  Gabrielle yawned and closed her eyes. “I thought about how the gods might have ended up being a part of our world and went with it..

“Really?”

“Really.”  

Was that it?  Xena rested her chin against her partner’s head, already feeling the relaxing of Gabrielle’s body against her as the bard dismissed the thought and let sleep claim her.

Huh.

Xena admitted privately to herself how shook up she felt, so visibly to her affected by the gods machinations that had brought her, and her army so far without really understanding what had gone on.

She felt like she was missing something, but searching her memory over and over, she could only recall that moment of dislocation,  herself seated next to Ares, seeing Gabrielle look over her shoulder at them, seeing that brief, wry grin.

Then the bang.

Then nothing. Nothing but the echoes of that sound shaking her awake, here in Amphipolis, here in their home, all the struggle, and battle and trouble behind her.

What had happened to the gods?  Had they helped?  Was Artemis back in Olympus, and what had happened to Athena or Hercules?

Did it matter really if she just let it go, and joined Gabrielle in sleep?   Xena mentally shrugged and let her eyes close, letting the silence of their cabin settle around her. 

Outside, the wind was rattling the branches, and there were soft pops and crackles from the fireplace where a neatly laid fire would keep them until dawn.

Then maybe they could gather down at Cyrene’s inn and compare notes, see if there was anything else that they’d remembered. Or forgotten. 

Or maybe they’d just have breakfast, and resume their lives.  Dori would ride her pony.  They’d take Cari back to the Amazon village.  A hunting party would go out.

Life would go on.

**

By the morning the snow had stopped, and the sun was out and bathing their cabin as it rose through the thick stand of trees around it. 

Xena stepped onto the porch and went to the edge of it, letting her hand rest on one of the supports as she watched a squirrel race across the open space before the cabin, dashing up a tree and pausing to look back at her.

Gabrielle was down in the village already and she pondered whether she should join her or go down to the town. After a moment she pushed off the porch support and went down the steps, her boots crunching softly in the snow as she headed for the path.

At the landing in front of the Amazon village she turned in, exchanging a wave with the Amazon guard there as she entered the central square.   Just as before they’d left, women were crossing the big open space dressed in thick furs and leathers, and the laughter of children sounded just off to the left.

Normal.  Like nothing had happened.   Xena could hear Gabrielle’s voice in the dining hall as she neared it, and she angled that way, pushing open the sturdy door and entering the busy with breakfast space.

Had she been teaching metal working just a moon ago here?   Xena quickly spotted Gabrielle over at the head table and went to join her, stepping up onto raised platform and taking the hand the queen reached out to her.

Xe, listen to this.”  Gabrielle said, as she sat down. 

“Sure.”  Xena rested her elbows on the table. “What’s up, Aalene?”

“I was just telling Gabrielle.” Aalene responded promptly. “That right after you left,  the plains queen? The one who got beaten up? She disappeared from the back of the inn.  Cyrene came up here and asked if she’d come up by us, but no. She just vanished.”

“Huh. Forgot all about her.” Xena admitted. “Maybe she just got tired of the company?”

“With those injuries? Just walk out? “ Aalene said. “Cyrene said she sent one of the kitchen gals to bring her some dinner the night after you all went off and there was no sign of her.”

Gabrielle frowned. “No one saw her leave?”

“No, that was the weird thing, and why Cyrene came up here to ask us – it’s not like you can just walk out of Amphipolis without someone noticing, the guards, or whatever.”  Aalene said. “Not that we weren’t glad to have her gone.  She was creepy.”

She had been.  Hmph.”  Gabrielle grunted. “Wonder if she wasn’t just part of this whole scheme.”  She murmured. “I was kinda hoping we’d get a chance to tell her she hadn’t been abandoned by her sisters.”

“Maybe she knew that.”  Xena spoke up. “Maybe she was the one who sold those guys out, then she got beaten when she wanted to get paid.”

“Oh, no. Xena she wouldn’t.”  Gabrielle protested.  “Those were her… “ She paused, seeing the wry look on her partner’s face.  Xe, c’mon. They came here to try and get money out of us fo.. “ She paused again. “Oh sheeps.”

“That ranks.”  Aalene made a face, looking up as Eponin came over and took a seat next to them, as two of the  youngers delivered a platter to the table.  “Hey Pony.”

“Hey.”  Pony returned the greeting.  “You hear about whatserface taking off?”

Aalene was just telling us.” Gabrielle said, then she glanced to one side as she caught sight of Cait entering the dining hall.  “Excuse me a minute.” She got up and moved around the table, signaling her chief guard to hold up.

Cait did, pushing back the hood on her cloak to expose her pale head. “I’m glad you’re here.” She told the queen when Gabrielle reached her. “I’ve got to ask you – whatever are we supposed to say to people when they asked us what went on the past moon?”

Gabrielle sighed. “Yeah,  Pasi just asked me that too.” She edged to the side with Cait, clearing the passage up to the breakfast pot. “I have that same problem sometimes.  There are just things I don’t say because people think I’m nuts.”

“Exactly.”

The bard nibbled on the edge of her thumbnail. “Tell you what, I’ll tell everyone the whole story tonight, after dinner.”

Cait’s pale brows lifted.

“So tell everyone to wait for that.”  Gabrielle put her hand on Cait’s shoulder.  “But what I really wanted to tell you is just, thank you.”  She said. “Thank you, and Paladia, for standing by us, and risking a lot of yourselves in that little adventure.”

Cait studied her soberly. “It was difficult.”  She admitted. “I was terribly scared a lot, and I’m not used to that.” She said. “It made me feel awful.”

“It does.”  Gabrielle replied. “I felt overwhelmed myself.  There was just so much out of our control you know?”

Cait nodded. “How does Xena feel about it?”  She asked, after a pause. “She got to use that great sword, and all that.”

Gabrielle turned her head to regard her partner, who was sprawled half over the table, hand propping her head up.   Xe’s funny that way.  She doesn’t really stress over things like that. It’s in the past, for her.”

“Really?”

“Really. I mean, here we are going through all that, and the sea creature, and being in Hades, and all that stuff – and we wake up in bed last night and Xe’s all like - how convenient!”  Gabrielle laughed faintly.  “She just moves on.”

Cait thought about that for a minute, then she smiled. “Clever of her, really.”

Gabrielle also smiled. “It is, because she knows she can’t change what happened.  I finally learned that myself, because I used to go over and over and over things in my head, and worry. Xe doesn’t worry. Xe just lives.”

Cait visibly relaxed.  “I think that’s a good idea.  After all, we really can’t go back and change it can we?  And we’re here, at home, with a lovely breakfast to look forward to.”  She indicated the cookpot. “Would you like some?”

Steaming hot porridge.  Gabrielle hated it. “Absolutely.” She put her hand on Cait’s back and guided her towards the front of the hall. “Is Paladia sleeping in?”

“Gosh no.”  Cait now sounded more herself. “She’s sketching like mad.  Says she wants to make her pictures of it before she forgets all  of the things that happened. Especially that whole crack bit.”

“That’s great. She can help me tell the story tonight then.”

“I’m sure she’d like that a lot.”

“I’m sure she’d rather chew nails, but I bet you can get her to do it.”  Gabrielle was slowly feeling the world settling back into it’s proper place around her.  She no longer felt strange and out of sorts. 

“Mama!”  Dori came pattering in, her body covered in what appeared to be flour.  “I made the buppit change color! Come see!”

“Yep.”  Gabrielle exhaled wryly. “It’s good to be home.”

**

Xena found herself a little later down in the stable in back of her mother’s inn, brushing Argo’s mane and tail out and examining her favorite horse for any ill effects from the travel. 

Argo seemed none the worse for wear, chewing a bit of hay from the haynet in her stall, and she bumped her rider casually as she shifted a bit in the straw. 

All her tack was in it’s place, as though Xena had put her in her stall herself, and the rest of the horses, Shadow and Iolaus, and Rusty the pony were contentedly chewing, or in Rusty’s case, lying down casually, glad to be snug and warm inside rather than out in the chill air.

She’d left her sword up at the cabin and was dressed in plain working clothes, and she finished up her brushing, walking past Argo and giving her a kiss on the head.  “Glad to be home, girl?”

Argo eyed her tolerantly, lifting her nose up and puffing warm exhales gently into Xena’s face. 

“They told me you led the way into Hades to go looking for us. That true?”  Xena put the brush down and put her arm over her horse’s neck.  “You and that crazy Cereberus.”

Argo snorted, and shook her head, and Iolaus put his head over the wall of her stall to see what was going on.  Xena gave him a scrub on the forehead with her knuckles, then she moved out of the stall and went to make sure all their kit had ended up back where it belonged.

She lifted the cover up of the cabinet and reached inside, then paused, and gently shifted aside the bag Gabrielle typically carried her things in. 

Underneath it, she found a splint, and she picked it up, turning it over as she recognized it as the one she’d assembled around Artemis’s hand.  It had been carefully unwrapped, and neatly folded, put carefully away as though to wait for another time.

Xena put it in her belt pouch and then she sorted through the rest of the gear, but there was nothing else out of the ordinary to be found in it, just well used tools and equipment, cleaned and ready for their next adventure.

She covered the supply box and looked around thoughtfully, tipping her head back out of long habit and finding the faint, fading letters carved into the spars that held the thatch roof up and stopped, her breath catching. “What th…”

After a frozen moment she leaped up and pulled herself up into the loft, getting closer to the spars and peering at the new, perfectly shaped carving in them.

Then she let herself go flat on her back. “Gabrielle’s gonna freak.”

She lay there for a minute, then she rolled over and rolled right off the loft edge, dropping to the ground and making Rusty snort in surprise.  “Sorry little guy.” She headed for the door and went through it, into the bright, cold light.

It was busy, in the crossroads by the inn.  Her army was putting supplies away, and as she went down to the barracks she saw several soldiers in the three cornered building that held the smith forge and that made her remember again what she’d been doing before the whole thing came up.

It felt like that was years ago, her being up in the Amazon village, teaching them to work metal.  Things had been going along well, she reflected and then.

And then.  Xena paused and regarded the sturdy barracks, busy with soldiers going about the business of being soldiers.

And then.

She rested her hands on the top rail of the fencing that edged the slope the barracks were on, noting that her presence was noted.  She lifted a hand and waved, and Bennu left behind the saddle he’d been carrying and came over to meet her.

Mornin, Xena.”  Bennu perched on the railing.  “Army’s finally settling.  Still trying to figure out what the Hades went on.”

Xena sat down next to him. “If I had to guess, I’d say we managed to achieve whatever it was we were drawn out of here to do.” She let her hands rest on her thigh.  “Because I think we were.”

“Aye.”  Bennu nodded. “Was thinking that, after that caltrop.”

“Caltrop?”

“One was found in the stable. That dead un, paid to put there.  Was meant to hurt you, Xena. Only your beasts in there, belongs to your family.”

“Guy was found dead.”

“Aye. He was.  Was thinking he was done off with to keep him from talkin.”

Xena considered that in silence for a long moment. “So we couldn’t tell who was behind it.”

“Aye.” Bennu scratched his nose. “Every time we thought we had things taped, it wasn’t. Like them folks from that city, what come to get us.  Was dead wrong in that place, Xena.  Them was wrong headed.”

Xena folded her arms.

“Anyhow.”  The soldier cleared his throat. “One thing some of the men were asking, like, is if it was okay for us to put up a little shrine to the God o war. That okay with you?”

“We used to have one.”  Xena indicated the space behind the stables.   “It got destroyed in one of the raider attacks.”

“Your mother said.”  He nodded.  “Men figured us being a army and all that wouldn’t do no harm.”

Would it?  Xena thought about it.  “I think it’s fine.”  She said, slowly. “I was saying to Gabrielle when we were marching that worship of the gods.. the falling off of that started with us, not with them.”  She remarked. “In my early career as an ass kicker I used to burn an offering to him before any of my big fights.”

Bennu smiled. “Don’t much need to do that now.”

“No.” Xena returned the smile. “I’m not sure I needed to do it then.  But it felt right, you know? Just a little routine, like sharpening my sword, or taking a bath.”

“A cleaning, yah.” He chuckled. “Boy do I remember that.”

“Anyway, sure.  Pick a spot and have at it.”  Xena got up off the railing. “Let me know when its’ ready and I’ll christen it with you.”

Bennu looked pleased.  “Will do,  Xena.”

They both looked up as they heard familiar pony hoofbeats, and saw Dori come galloping around the bend of the path on Rusty’s back.  “You’re right.” Xena hopped off the railing and went to intercept her daughter. “About that caltrop. Hey!  Hey Dori! Hold up!”

Bennu watched her slow the pony down and grab his bridle. “Aye.” He said, somewhat under his breath. “Wanted you, it did. Whatever it was.  But when it gotcha, it was sorry.”

Xena walked the pony back up the path.  “Where’s your friend, Dor?”

“In da stables, Boo.”  Dori told her. “I was gonna go get some cookies. We were making fun.” 

Obligingly,  Xena changed her path, crossing over and guiding child and pony up to the side entrance of the inn. “Okay, let’s go see grandma.” She lifted Dori up off Rusty’s back and set her on the ground, then looped the pony’s reins over an iron spike in the inn’s walls.

“Bring him too, Boo.” Dori protested. “It’s cold outside!’

“He’s got a nice, thick coat.”  Xena herded her through the side door. “We’ll bring him a treat.”  She followed Dori into the kitchen and found her mother and two of the cooks inside.  “Hey.”

“Hey.”  Cyrene was perched on one of the benches either side of the table.  “Figured out what’s going on yet?”

“No.”  Xena picked up one of the utility baskets.  “Got any cookies? Dori’s playing house in the barn.”  She watched her daughter patter around the room.  “Which now has some carved initials from Olympus in it.”

Cyrene had started to stand up, and now she paused in midmotion. “What?”

“Yeah.”  Xena was rummaging in the cupboard.  “Up in the loft.” She found a small loaf of nutbread and stuck it into the basket. “I know you think we’re crazy, but maybe that’ll change your mind.”

Cyrene snorted.

“Boo, look!”  Dori came over, holding her hand up. “An happle. Can I give it to Rusty?”

“Sure.”  Xena ruffled her hair. “”Gwan.”

Xena, it’s not that we think you’re crazy.” Her mother came over, holding the door open as Dori squiggled through it. “I just remember, clear as day, clear as I see you standing here, you, and that whole army coming around the bend and off the road. I can hear the sound of the lot of you on the bridge if I close my eyes.”

“I know.” Xena added some pears and apples to her basket. “But I just as clearly remember being in a cave, listening to Gabrielle telling a story about the beginnings of the gods last night.” She regarded her mother. “We figure something happened, and we did something right for a change, and as a reward we got put back here without having to march.”

“Eh. Not that it much matters.”

“True.” 

A distant whistle caught Xena’s ear, and she ducked outside the kitchen door, almost bumping into Rusty as she moved past him and into the road to look towards the sound.  The guard stationed down across the river was loping across the bridge, and as she watched he spotted her and headed immediately in her direction.

Bennu had heard the sound too, and was moving her way, with a half dozen other of her army.

“What’s goin on Boo?” Dori had wandered into the path behind her, tugging Rusty along. “Bad mens?”

“No, just one of our friends.”  Xena lifted her up onto Rusty’s back.  “Just hang on there, shortie.”

The guard arrived and so did Bennu and his mates.  Xena, got  a relay from the pass.”

“West?”

“Yes.”  The man nodded. “Trading convoy coming through.  A dozen wagons, and Ref said they told him they were looking for a spot to winter.”

“From?”

He shook his head. “Didn’t say.  Therma way maybe,  some said they knew you.”

Broad range of possibilities. “Okay, when they get here let them settle in across the river. They can shelter in the playhouse.”  Xena shifted her basket and took hold of Rusty’s reins again.  “Market’s always good news.” She started leading the pony back to the stable.

“Less they’e got caltrops.”  Bennu reminded her.

Xena looked over her shoulder and gave him a wry look.  Then she continued on. “Lets get you back to your friends in the barn, Dor. I’ve got to go find your mama.”

“Go mama.” Dori answered contentedly.  “Boo, can Cari stay with us?”

Xena walked along in silence for a moment. “You want that, little one?” She asked, as they neared the barn. “Did you have fun in the valley with her?”

“Yes. Good friend.”  Dori supplied, earnestly.  “She wasn’t scared even when we flyed home, Boo.”

Xena stopped at the door and looked at her. “Fly home?”

Dori nodded. “Fun.” She assured her parent.

The warrior pulled the barn door open, and stepped back to let Rusty walk past her. Inside,  Cari and Toris’ twin boys were in the hay bin, giggling as they appeared.

Aww!” Little Solon yodeled. “You brought back auntie Xe!” He jumped out of the haybin and ran over to her.  “Auntie Xe! Auntie Xe! Come see what we found!”

“Hang on.”  Xena walked Rusty back to his stall, as Dori scrambled off his back.  Since her child hadn’t bothered to add any tack to the pony’s halter, she merely pulled down an armful of hay for him in an automatic gesture, and put up the rope at the front.  “Okay you bandits. What’s up?”

She went over to the hay crib, drawn by Dori’s squeals of delight and looked down to see motion at the bottom. “What do we have here?”

Buppits!” Dori danced around in a circle. “Oh Boo!”

Xena perched on the edge of the crib and reached down, picking up one of the puppies and cradling it in both hands.  It was a mottled brown color, and had a round head and tiny ears, but there was a faint familiarity about it that made her pause.

It opened it’s eyes and blinked at her, showing pale, golden orbs and she let out a breath. “Look at this, Dor. “ She glanced down. “There are four of them. How do you like that?”

Buppits!”  Dori hauled herself into the bin and sorted the straw, exposing another of the pups and gently picking it up. “Look!” She brought it closer to Cari. “Look, Ca!!”

“So cute!” Cari answered softly, reaching out to touch the tiny animal with her fingertips.

Dori looked around. “Boo, where dere mama?”  The child of two of them immediately recognized the lack.  “You scare her out?” She asked Solon, who solemnly shook his head.

“No, we found them.”  His brother added. “Just like this, Auntie Xe.”

These were not Ares by blows.  Xena handed off the pup she was holding to Cari, watching the child carefully cradle it.   Each of the puppies, on their small shoulders had light tan, round spots and a ring of the same color around their necks.

C’n I have one Auntie Xe?” Solon asked, wistfully.

“Sure.” Xena lifted the third of the four out and handed it to him. “Hold him gently, okay?” She watched him cradle the puppy, a grin forming on his face.  Lyceus came over to claim the last one, and they all sat for a moment, four children with four puppies, and their silent watcher.

They were more than newborns.  Xena figured they were six or seven weeks old, and she thought she understood the silent message they brought with them.  Whether they were Cereberus’ get, or his son’s it was a more than obvious offering.

So.

The door opened and Gabrielle entered, pausing to regard the small group.  “Hi.”

“Hi.”  Xena extended her hand. “C’mon over and meet the new family members. Olympus left us a present.”

“Ah.” Her partner joined her. “They’re adorable.” She gently touched the shoulder spot on one Lyceus was holding.  “Really glad they just have these. A lot easier to explain to the neighbors.”

Xena chuckled.

Buppits.”  Dori was seated cross legged in the straw, with her new friend in her lap.  “Boo said we could keep them mama!”

“Of course Boo did.”  Gabrielle issued a wry, indulgent grin.  “Are you going to name this one, Dor? Not just call him Buppit?”

Dori studied her new friend. “C”n I call him Boo?”

“Please no.” Xena sighed. 

“Now honey, you can’t call him Boo.” Gabrielle said. “If you start calling out Boo, how will he know if you mean him, or Xena?”

Call’m friend.”  Cari suggested softly.  “I can have this one?” She asked Xena.  “A friend is good to have.”

“A friend is the best thing to have.”  Gabrielle answered.  “So I think these little friends were left here for you kids, and you should feel really good about that.”  She regarded the small animals, all of which were watching her from identical, golden eyes.  “Love them.”

Dori hugged her puppy, understanding that word at least.  “Call him Buppit.” She decided, making both her parents laugh.  “He can be friends with Rusty  too!”

“Will you tell daddy we can keep them, Auntie Xe? He’ll do what you say.” Solon asked earnestly. “He don’t like aminals.”

I”ll tell him.”  Xena reassured him. “These are special animals.  He’ll get it.”

“Will he?” Gabrielle muttered.

Xena’s lips twitched. “Look over the loft.” She muttered back.  “Think they wanted to make sure we got the message.”

Gabrielle got up and went to the ladder, climbing up into the loft and then turning and dropping onto her back, wriggling through the straw and looking up at the spars that held up the thatch of the roof.  After a moment, she folded her hands over her stomach. “I don’t know how I feel about that, Xe.”

“Eh.”

“How do you feel about the Amazons asking me to build a temple up there.”

“Uh oh.”

“Not for who you think.” The bard reached up one hand and traced one of the new, perfect carvings. “Aphrodite.”

“Eh???”

Cait explained it to me. They figured out that I’m the happiest person they know, and Ares didn’t make me that way.”  Gabrielle informed her.  “Had no idea really what to say about that. I was about to ask if they wanted to make a temple to her or one to you.”

Xena started laughing.

“I mean, c’mon.”

Xena got up and went to the loft, laying her hands on the wood of the floor of it.  “Army wants a temple for Ares.” She said.

“Could have asked them the same thing.”  Gabrielle eyed her with faint amusement, watching her partner roll her eyes.   “But you know, I’m okay with both of those shrines.  Maybe we can re-ignite those traditions a little.”

“Do we want to?”

Gabrielle exhaled. “We need something to look up to Xe.  We know them.  Maybe the alternative is far, far worse. You know?  Then worshipping love and war.”

Xena looked behind her at the children playing with their new friends, surrounding them with a giggling circle as they tumbled in the straw.   “Maybe.”  She admitted.  “At least we do know them.”

“Mm.”

Xena leaned her head against the wood. “Just please don’t let them name any of those puppies Xena.” She whispered. “Or Boo. Please?”

Gabrielle rolled over and reached out, cupping her head with one hand and leaning over to kiss it affectionately.

**

The snow had stopped, and it was dark, a crystalline darkness with a crisp half moon risen over the horizon, lighting the valley and river below the ridge Xena was standing on.

It was a distance from their cabin, around the side of the mountain from where it stood and down slope from her old tree haunt, a wide plat of ground that allowed no access upward towards their home for normal folk, and access from below only by a rugged, tough path.

Hard place to get to, but it had an isolation and an overlook that bespoke a dignified grandeur.

“Going to be a pain in the behind to build it here.”  Jessan came over to her and stood beside her looking out over the snow covered ground. “But it feels right.”

“It does.”  Xena kicked a bit of rock with her boot and watched it sail out over the edge of the ridge. “I didn’t want to put shrines in town.”

“Or the village.”

“Or the village.   This gives anyone wanting to make an offering work for it.”  Xena turned and regarded the ground.  “Even us.”

The forest dweller turned into the breeze, his nostrils flaring as the wind brushed back the thick russet hair around his head. “We won out there, Chosen.” He said. “I can feel it. We all did. Elani told me even when we were in Hades, and I couldn’t sense her, she could sense me.  She knew we were all right.”

“Huh”

He spread out his arms, and breathed in the cold air.  “I told them about Ares.  They want this too.” 

“Shrines.”  Xena sighed.

Jessan walked over to her.  “They want something to believe in.”  He stood toe to toe with her, their eyes meeting in the moonlight. “When I told them that you were thinking of doing this … I could see the burn in their eyes, Chosen.”

Xena sighed again.

“I want this.”  Jessan said, gently.  “I saw him. I fought next to him.”

“You carried his sword.”

“And you wielded it.”  Jessan remained silent for a moment. “What did that feel like?” He asked. “Did it hurt?”

“Yeah.” Xena flexed her hands, turning them upmost and studying their unmarked surface. “It hurt. It was hard. Felt like my whole body was on fire.  I was glad to give it back.”

“Truly, Xena?” He asked gently. “For that moment, you owned that thing.”

“Did I?” Xena shook her head after a moment. “No.”  She spread her arms out and let the moonlight bathe them.  “Not in the way I own my own. Or the way I own this body.”  She closed her eyes and thought about the difference, the sense that the sword was guiding her, to it’s own purpose.  “We were pawns in a play, Jess.”

“Gabrielle said that.” He answered with a faint smile, showing the tips of his fangs.  “And if anyone would know, it’d be her. But was this the end of the play?” He indicated the ground. “Us doing this?”

“Maybe.  But I’m all right with it.”  Xena tugged her gauntlets on a bit more snugly.  “We’ll start dropping logs down that cliff tomorrow.”

**

Gabrielle sat at her desk, head propped up on one fist as she wrote on a thick parchment.  The sound of the quill point scraping on the surface was loud in the room, the shutters over the windows tightly fastened to block out the cold.

She paused and put the quill down for a moment, picking up a cup of tea and taking a sip of the lightly steaming beverage, leaning back in her chair for a few minutes break.

Her quarters had been expanded a little.  They’d built on a new room, to give Dori and Cari space for their rapidly multiplying toys so that it was more or less the same size as their cabin up the ridge. 

Both she and Xena had thought through keeping Cari with them for quite a while, but the very obvious joy Dori displayed with having a constant playmate had eventually won them over.

Easier, Xena had eventually said than having them try to have a second. Wasn’t it?

Well.  Gabrielle took another sip of her tea, savoring the new, spicy taste of the herbs that had come with the merchant wagons. 

She heard bootsteps approaching and smiled as the door pushed inward and Xena entered, closing it behind her.  “Hey.”

“Hey.”  Xena undid her cloak and hung it on the doorside hook, then came over and settled on the stool next to her partners  desk.  “Temples will be ready tomorrow.”

“Uh huh. So what’s the consensus, we open the doors in the morning or at night?”  The bard asked. “That whole moonlight thing is cool hon, but it’s freezing out there.”

Xena grinned briefly in agreement. “Dawn.” She said. “Weather should be good for it.  Freeze might even break.”  She let her hands rest on her knees. “Long ass winter.”

Gabrielle nodded.  “You thinking about what it’s going to be like if they were right and it’s not going to end?” She asked seriously.  “Not sure if we can exist just with hunting.”

It was cold, and had been cold since their return. Not just the normal cold they’d become used to, but a frozen, lifeless cold that had them chopping holes in the spring just to get water, and gained them several scores of miserable wanderers, survivors of ghost towns who didn’t have the supplies to keep them fed.

“We can move.”  Xena remarked.  “Plenty of places its warmer. You’ve been to some.” She added. “But no, I don’t think they were right. I’ve seen winters bad as this here.”

“True. But I don’t want to move so I’ll gladly agree with you.”  The bard offered her the cup.  “What did you say this spice was, Xe? Its nice. I like it.”

Xena tasted it, then handed the cup back.  “That’s ginseng. And I don’t really want to move either. We’ll just have to see what happens.”  She glanced at the parchment. “That the proclamation?”

Gabrielle nodded, and pulled the parchment over, it’s rich, creamy white texture at odds with the rest of the scraps all over her desk.  “You like?”

“I like that your handwriting ‘s getting better.”  Xena leaned forward to read, as they both heard a veritable stampede of tiny boots and paws heading their way.   “Uh oh.”

“Gee thanks, madam who writes like ink spattered squirrel feet.  Read fast. I’d better get that put up before it’s covered in gunk”

The door opened, and Dori came running in, with Cari after her, and two growing puppies.  “Boo! Mama! Guess what we sawed!”

Could almost be anything. “C’mere and tell mama.” Gabrielle edged her seat out from behind her desk and held her hands out.  “Boo’s reading something for me.”

The two puppies came over and under Gabrielle’s desk, immediately taking a seat one each on Xena’s boots and looking up at her expectantly.

Gabrielle snickered unkindly.  “Animal magnetism. Never fails her.”

Xena glanced at her, then at the puppies, then back at the parchment. “Ah, for the days when I was a bloodthirsty warlord.”  She sighed in mock regret.

“Honey, way back then you’d still have been feeding those puppies under the table so don’t even.”  Gabrielle put Dori on her lap, while Cari came over and peeked over the top of her desk. “Now, what did you see, Doriana?”

“Mama I sawed a big white owl and Cari sawed a white deers!”

Gabrielle tilted her head and exchanged brief glances with her now serious faced partner. “Really Dor? Where’d you kids see those animals?”

“Up up.”  Dori informed her. “Buppit wanted to go go, but we came here.” She kicked her booted feet out in random rhythm. “Mama you got cookies? We’re hungry.”

Xena got up and gently de puppied her boots, putting the parchment up on a shelf behind the desk. “Be right back.” She said, briefly, detouring over to the wall to don the over the shoulder belt that held her sword in it’s sheath.

Easier to fit over the lined and thick hide tunics and leggings she was forced to wear in the cold, less apt to get tangled if the hooks for the sword were sewn directly into the hide covering her back.   Xena worked the clever and intricate clasp at her waist that twisted together and started for the door.

“Want company?” Gabrielle had gotten her boots under her to stand up.

“Probably nothing. I’ll call ya.”  Xena evaded the puppies underfoot and went to the door, getting through it before anyone could follow her.   She loped quickly across the Amazon village and emerged onto the path, turning right and starting up the slope towards their cabin.

The frost on the ground crunched under her lined boots, and she could feel a little of the cold penetrating the sleeves of the shirt she was wearing under her tunic, cut to allow her free motion if needed.

As she reached the top of the path and emerged through the dead branches into the clearing that held their home, she paused and went still.

Unlike in the warmer season, when the always windswept glade would be full of leaf sounds and branches rubbing, and the warbling of the spring now there was a breathless, frozen silence.

The cabin was draped in snow, across the thatch roof and on the edges of the railing that bordered the porch.  Behind it she could see the depression that was the frozen over spring and the faint hump that was the piping that would, in warmer times, bring water into the cabin.

Slowly she turned around and extended her senses,  her eyes spotting the footprints in the snow that marked Dori’s wandering.  She searched the branches on the edge of the open space intently, moving from tree to tree in search of the huddled form of the owl.

The wind lifted her hair and brushed against her face and she inhaled it as her ears cocked, listening.

Then the silence was broken, and she jerked, then relaxed as she recognized the black form emerging from the trees, licking it’s chops. “ Hey Ares.”

The wolf came over to her and sat down, his tail wagging a little in the snow. There were snowflakes resting on his fur and he twitched one ear, shedding some of them. “Groof.”

“C’mon  Xena walked past the cabin and entered the woods beyond it, her boots making deep impressions into the snow as she climbed up the sloping ground and made her way between the trees as they altered from bare branched to the thickly needled evergreens.

That brought a rich, pungent smell to banish the chill nothing,  and she breathed it in with pleasure as the needled branches brushed against her, shedding some snow and their distinctive oil with it.  She continued on, ducking under some lower limbs and watching carefully for any moving creature.

Ares trotted at her heels, sniffing the ground. Then he suddenly came past her, diving through the snow and leaping up onto a boulder that stood at the edge of the treeline. 

Xena eased up next to him and put her hand on his back, feeling the fur lifting under her touch and she looked across the slope where he was staring, but found nothing there.   With a sidelong glance she walked past and felt the wind pick up as she climbed up the ridge to where her old apple tree stood.

It’s branches were bare, and snow was piled up at the bottom of the trunk, a large blob near the top identifying where the little tree house was that she’d once played in, once gazed out over the valley in and on one magical night, slept with Gabrielle in.

It had been a very clear night, she remembered, and tonight would be clear as well, only much colder.   She put her hand on the trunk of the tree and patted it in deep affection, looking carefully but seeing nothing stirring anywhere around.

This much closer to the temples she could hear the faint sounds of construction going on, the last touches being put on the two shrines for the morning and after a moment she continued on along the ridge to where the sturdy poles of two big ladders could be seen.

Xena looked down at the lower plateau, seeing a half dozen workers around the new construction, two roughly square buildings made of stone cut from the mountain and wood from the winter bared slope above.

Her body stiffened suddenly as she sensed something behind her, and she turned and stepped back from the edge, one hand going up to grasp her sword hilt.

But the slope was empty, save for Ares who was seated nearby, tongue lolling out.

And yet, she could still feel something there. Her skin prickled and she felt a tension around her shoulders, muscles readying to fight.

But the clearing stayed empty, Ares stayed seated, looking around and watching her with a somewhat puzzled expression.

Xena exhaled silently, her breath streaming visibly from her lips.  She put her hands on her hips and waited a few minutes, her nape hairs prickling, but to no avail.  “Damn it.”  She walked back to the tree and gave it another pat, shaking her head.

Taking a step past it, she sensed an attack and she turned, lifting her arm to protect her head as she felt something moving towards it.  It bounced off her forearm and dropped to the ground, disappearing into the snow.  “What the heck?”

She stuck her hand in the hole it left and felt a round surface under her fingers, which, when pulled up for her inspection turned out to be an apple.

Xena looked up, at the completely barren tree branches.  “Thanks.” She put the apple into her belt pouch and started back towards the cabin, the tingling on her skin fading as she walked. “Gonna be one of those days, isn’t it.”

**

Cari, c’mere.”  Gabrielle leaned her elbows on her knees. 

The curly haired child looked up, then she got to her feet and came over, not without a touch of apprehension.

An old feeling that Gabrielle understood, at a very gut level.  She held her hands out. “I want to ask you something.”

Dori looked up from her rocks,  watching her mother alertly.  After a moment she got up and joined them, standing at the edge of the desk.  “Mama, what you do?”

Gabrielle looked directly at her.  “I want to talk to Cari, honey.  Go play with your rocks for a minute.” She waited for Dori to consider the request, then reluctantly retreat to the bearskin in the corner. “Thank you.”

Cari took her hands uncertainly.  “I do something bad?”

Gabrielle smiled at her. “Not at all, Cari.  I just want to ask you something, that’s all.” She watched the child relax.  “So, are you having fun being here with Dori and us?”

Cari nodded confidently.

“Do you miss all the kids in the big house?” The bard asked. “Being with all the other girls?”

Cari considered this a little longer.  But not much. “No.” She answered, softly.  “Don’t like them.”

Gabrielle’s eyebrows lifted. “You don’t like the other girls?”

The little girl shook her head. “Means.” She added. “Them means to me, until Dodo comes.” She looked behind her where Dori was seated cross legged, merely listening. “Good friend.”

Why?  Gabrielle sighed internally.  Why would they pick on little Cari, who was shy and harmed nothing?

What was it about the Amazons that made them be so competitive? To have that constant drive to fight to the top of the ladder and reject almost instinctively the gentle and quiet among them? Even as children. “I’m glad Dori’s been a good friend for you.” She said, after a moment.

Gots to go back?” Cari asked, forlornly.

“No.”  Gabrielle said. “I was going to ask you if you wanted to stay with us all the time, Cari.  We want you to be part of our family.”

“Stay here?” Cari almost gasped.

“Yes.”  Gabrielle watched Cari’s eyes open in wide hope and she pulled her into a hug, remembering a moment in her own life when acceptance had meant everything.

In the worst of times.

In the best of times.

She felt Cari jerk, and she loosened her hold so she could look at the child. “Is that okay?” She asked, smiling as she saw the delight her eyes. “You want to be part of this crazy family, Cari?”

“Yes.” Cari smiled back in obvious relief.  “I can be crazy too?”

Gabrielle let out a chuckle. “Sure, why not?”  She ruffled Cari’s curly hair. “I think I have to work on getting more of you kids adopted out to the tribe.  You all need attention.”

Dori clapped, over in her corner. It attracted the attention of the two puppies who came over to her and started licking her face, making her giggle.  She got up and came over again. “Mama done?”  She inquired. “No more yak yak. “

“Precocious child.”  The bard regarded her offspring indulgently. “You’re such a brat, Dori. Just like your other mother.”

Cari turned to Dori. “Sokay if I call her mama?”

Dori’s dark brows contracted as she tilted her head. “What else you gonna call mama?”  She asked in some bewilderment, looking up at Gabrielle. “Mama is mama.”

“Sure.”  Gabrielle agreed. “And its okay if you call Xena Boo if you want to.  She doesn’t mind.”

Cari’s eyes widened in alarm.  “Yes?”

Gabrielle’s mental wagon went briefly off the trail. “Sure.  Don’t be afraid of Xena. You aren’t, are you?”

Cari’s lower lip poked out a little. “Big.” She said, after a moment. “The others are scared.”

Ah. Gabrielle’s expression sobered. “Okay I see.” She said.  Cari, you never have to be afraid of Xena. Only bad people have to be afraid of her, you know? Because she protects the people she loves and she doesn’t want them to get hurt, ever.”

Cari’s face brightened. “Like Dodo.”

Gabrielle looked over at her daughter, with a faint, wry smile. “Yes.  Dori’s very much like Xena. And she’s going to be just as big as Xena when she grows up so get used to that.”  And as she said the words, she knew in her guts they were true, and that Dori’s future would never be in a peaceful farm or busy shop. “Right Dor?”

“Yes!” Dori patted the desk. “We go play now?” She determinedly changed the subject. “Go see if Cat’s got fishes.”  She grabbed Cari and started for the door. “Go go go.”

It opened as they reached it, and Xena stepped to one side to let them out.  Careful  kiddos.  Steps are slippery.”

“Dank you Boo!”  Dori called over her shoulder as she jumped off the little porch, evading the whole step issue altogether, as the puppies scrambled after them.

Xena watched them go, then stepped inside the queen’s quarters and let the door close behind her.  She and Gabrielle regarded each other in silence for a bit, then she removed the apple from her pouch and went over to set it down on the desk, taking the chair across from the bard and dropping into it.

“Do I want to know where that came from?” Gabrielle asked.

Xena grunted, and propped her head up on one fist, her elbow on the chair’s arm.

“That’s what I thought.”

**

They decided to sleep in the cabin that night, and Gabrielle was sprawled on the low slung leather couch in front of their fire, doing nothing more than enjoying the fire and it’s shadowy dance on the ceiling.

Dori and Cari were down with the rest of the kids in the village, at a group sleepover where the minders would watch them while the tribe and the town, and their parents launched the new temples.

Xena was over in the corner where she had her little work bench set up, polishing her armor, an oil lamp hanging over her head spilling light all over her.

“Want another baked apple, Xe?”

“Sure.” The warrior stifled a yawn. “Almost done here.”

Gabrielle pushed herself to her feet and went over to the fireplace, picking up one of the wooden platters sitting on the table and bringing it with her.  She removed the top of the cast iron pot hanging over the fire, digging the third of four apples out and scooping some honey and cinnamon to drizzle over it.

One of Xena’s favorite treats, in this case made from the last apple harvest from town and set to bake before their dinner, to provide a sweet at the end of it.   She brought it over to her partner and set it down on the workbench.  “They worth all that polishing? You’re probably going to be covered in dew before we get down there.”

Xena chuckled.  “I haven’t had this stuff on since we got back.  Needed some work.”

Gabrielle sat down on the stool next to her.  “Do we know how to get a temple started, Xe? Or are you just going to go down there, push the gates open and tell them all to get on with it?”

Xena sniffed reflectively. “Good question. I thought putting the word out would bring up some of their accolytes… maybe an oracle but I guess not.  We’ll figure it out.” She finished the last piece of armor and set it aside. 

“They’ll show up eventually. Probably waiting for better weather.”  Gabrielle watched her pick up the dish and dig into the apple.  “Maybe that’s where the term fair weather worshippers comes from?”

Xena chuckled silently as she chewed.

“I think I’ll recite a poem for Aphrodite’s.”  Gabrielle said. “I have a new one I wrote, and I think it’s okay for that.”

“Sounds good.”

Gabrielle reached over and stole a bit of the apple with her fingers.  “And I’m looking forward to the festival. Glad we’re having it across the river, and all those merchants are around.  It’ll be fun.”

“It’ll be fun.” Xena agreed. “Army finished putting up all those tents.” She licked the spoon she was eating the apple with and then put the dish down.  “They’re happy, town’s happy, tribe’s happy,  army’s happy, mark the date on your diary cause that ain’t happening again soon.”

Heheh.” Gabrielle took the dish from her and put it on the washrack, then she came back over and offered both hands, curling her fingers inward invitingly. “C’mon.”

Xena got up and evaded her grip, closing her arms around her instead and lifting her up in a ferocious hug. “Thanks.”  She bumped her over to the bed and then turned, dousing the lamp beside it.  That left only the fire in the fireplace burning, shedding a faint golden red light on the inside of the cabin.

She tumbled into the soft, feather topped bed alongside Gabrielle, inhaling the clean linen smell and settling her head down on one of the pillows as the quilted blanket was brought up over her. It was cool and then warm, and then Gabrielle was draping her arm over her and curling up against her side.

They both exhaled about the same time and then laughed.  “So.”  Gabrielle snuggled up to her. “You think we can keep this festival going all sevenday until your birthday?”

“Can’t we let the festival be enough birthday?”  Xena asked.

“No.”

“Gabrielle, c’mon.”

“Honey we love celebrating your birthday.”  Her partner protested. “It’s solstice. You get presents, we get presents – c’mon yourself!”

Mmph.”

“I’m trying to figure out what we’re going to give Dori that’s going to beat that damn pony.”  Gabrielle mock sighed. “I mean really.  Could you maybe build her a slide?”

“A slide???”

“And we should give Cari something nice. How about some clothes? She liked those boots your mom gave her.”  Gabrielle gently drew patterns over her partner’s stomach, under the light fabric of her shift. “It’ll be fun.”

“What do you want for Solstice, by the way?”

“Me?”

“No, I’m talking to some other woman in bed with me.” Xena reached over and tweaked her nose. “Aside from nutbread and socks.”

Gabrielle smiled.  “I want all my family to be happy.”  She responded. “Not a damn other thing.”

**

Xena got to the bottom of the ladder and landed on plateau, which was already full of people.  There were forest dwellers and Amazons, merchants and townsfolk, most of whom had climbed up the newly staked out path from the valley below.

It was pre-dawn and dark.  But she could smell food and green things and spices, offerings to the gods that had been laboriously brought up with those who had made the climb up to help inaugurate the two new temples.

It was clear and the wind had died down, and as Xena sidled her way through the crowd she drew in a breath that didn’t sting the inside of her nose for the first time in a while.  

Xe.”

Gabrielle’s voice penetrated the murmuring and she angled her steps towards the temple to Aphrodite where here soulmate was standing with a group of Amazons.

“They did a nice job.”  The bard indicated the temple. “Look.”

There were oil lamps inside, warming the interior with a rich, golden bright light along all three of the open walls and at the apex of the roofline.

The third side was left open and it had been decorated with evergreen boughs, with pinecones and nuts tucked into them along with tiny wooden birds and flowers.   Xena ducked her head to enter and felt warmer immediately

 Inside the altar was stone, chiseled with care by the town stonemason and the center of the altar was a deep pool of fragrant oil, with floating wicks inside it.

“It’s really nice.”  Solari said.  “We had some dried flowers and Renas made these.” She indicated a half dozen wreathes that decorated the front of the altar.  “Better in the spring when we’ve got some fresh ones.”

It was nice, and Xena ran her hand over the carved surface with a grunt of approval.  Above the altar was a neatly painted image of Aphrodite herself, the colors rich and vibrant, the Goddess  draped in pristine white and girded with gold, holding a golden cup and half smiling at the viewers.

The image itself was realistic and precise, one of Paladia’s nicest portraits. “Wow.”  Xena said, half turning to look for Cait. “That’s nice.”

Cait smiled. “It is, isn’t it? Just finished up on those last night.” She said. “Wait until you see the other one.”

Thus invited,  Xena emerged from one temple and moved over to the other one, which, like it’s neighbor, was three sided.  Cait strolled diffidently at her heels, the young Amazon’s rank tokens being gently moved by the slight breeze.

Three sided.  Xena paused and regarded the second structure.

That was, really, the only similarity.   The opening of Ares temple was lined with iron and steel, artfully curled and intertwined in black and silver and the decorations here instead of birds and flowers were weapons.

Knives and miniature maces, and spear points pointed out in all directions making entry require some caution if you were, as Xena was, more than usually tall.    She went inside and felt the difference, this space lit with red oil lamps shedding light the color of blood and the altar black obsidian.

Made Xena’s skin prickle, a little in a not entirely unpleasant way.

The floor was lined with gray and black slate and as Cait had promised, above the altar was a blackwood framed painting of Ares seated on a throne like chair in a casual attitude, leaning back, his sword resting across his knees with the hilt clasped lightly in one hand.

His eyes picked up hints of blue color, and were looking right out at the viewer, the likeness impressive and almost uncanny.  “Wow.”  Xena repeated, unable to repress a smile.

“It’s quite good, isn’t it?”  Cait had her hands clasped behind her back.

‘That’s him.” Xena agreed. “Nice job. Where is Paladia?” She looked around.

Cait rolled her eyes. “Won’t come up here.  Didn’t want to have everyone tell her how lovely these nice pictures were.”

Xena chuckled.  “Well.  That’s sort of how I feel about singing.”   She admitted. “Which I’m gonna do today, so go get her and drag her up here if you have to.”

“Right.”  Cait turned and trotted out, visibly pleased.

**

The sky was lightening, the crowd had gathered.  

Xena stood on a flat, high rock halfway between the two temples, as everyone gathered in front of them, the chatter falling off as eyes turned to her with an almost giddy expectation.

She sensed motion behind her, and she turned her head to see tall, furred bodies moving forward from the cliff edge behind the temples, knowing that Jessan had led his people up through the path past her home.

Allowed, through the gates of Amphipolis, and past the guarded entrance to the Amazons, across the clearing that was theirs, and past the tree.

They gathered to one side of the crowd, tall and quiet, and making Xena inhale in surprise as she recognized Lestan’s face among them.   His eyes twinkled at the expression on her face, and he lifted his one remaining hand up in greeting.

She lifted her own in return, in a hunter’s signal that made his smile all the wider.

Gabrielle moved through the crowd, staff in hand, and stepped up onto the rock to join her.  Her carrybag was across her shoulder, her scrolls inside it, but the long knife visible at her waist and the staff paid tribute to her now realized dual nature.

“Ready?”  Xena asked her.

“As I ever will be.” Gabrielle replied wryly.  “You?”

Xena cleared her throat and faced the crowd.  “People!”  She called out briefly.  “Let’s do this thing.”

A wordless shout responded.   Xena shifted a little and looked at her partner, who had drawn a scroll from her bag and unrolled it, then paused and looked back. “Oh crap Xe. It’s too dark to read it.”

Xena stifled a laugh and held up a hand, then she started to get off the rock, stopping when, from nowhere, a small golden orb appeared at the bard’s left shoulder, hovering close to the parchment and spreading light over it.

Now there was complete silence, as Xena edged back into position and waited. All eyes were on that orb, save Gabrielle’s.   The bard glanced at the orb briefly, then dropped her gaze to the parchment. “Thank you.” 

Xena folded her hands in front of her and just smiled.

“Welcome.” The bard’s voice sounded, echoing a little over the ridge.  “We gather here together this morning to consecrate these two temples, these new places built by our hands to provide us a place to offer our prayers and acknowledge our debts to the two forces that have shaped our lives like none other.”

She looked behind her at the temples. “Love and war.”  Her eyes went to Xena’s profile. “Passion and battle have come to define the black and white of us as people, giving us something to aspire to and give our lives for.”  She looked out over the audience. “We would be the lesser without them.”

Gabrielle paused and waited, and a moment later the silence was broken and then filled with Xena’s singing voice, rising up on a note so clear and perfect  it brought tears to her eyes.

The words were simple, as simple as their origins were and they resonated through this crowd of equally simple folk who expected no more of life than friends and a good mug of ale at the end of a day of hard work.

They sounded of roots and warm sun, of sheep and riding through croplands. Of bending plows into swords, and the pain of a good death.  Of giving blood and sweat, and life and passion in the cause of a short life in the mortal world.

Bring the light, Xena sang, as the first rose of dawn lit her face.  Bring the darkness, we are children of both.

The last note echoed and faded.  Then they stepped down off the rock and moved first to Aphrodite’s temple, entering it together and regarding the altar.   Xena dug in her belt pouch and removed a roundish object, placing it squarely on the center of the rock.

The apple gathered in the light and shone gently there, and they stepped back. “C”mon people.” Xena broke the spell of silence outside.  “Offer what ya got.”

They moved to one side of the temple, as people started to move inside, each carrying some object, some small gift for the goddesses new shrine,  looking up at the portrait as they approached.

Xena laid her arm over Gabrielle’s shoulders and she put her arm around Xena’s waist as they watched their friends and family go by, the altar quickly becoming decorated with everything ranging from tiny cakes to colorful stones from the Amazon’s valley.

Coins.  Soft blankets. Feathers. Carved boxes.  Cyrene and Johan added a small pot.  Jessan and Elaini put down a basket of herbs and winked at them as they passed outside.  Cait added a piece of jewelry, a silver heart, her other hand firmly wrapped in Paladia’s cloak, pulling her along.

The former renegade glowered at the altar, her partner, and then gave Xena and Gabrielle a long suffering look as she was yanked past them.

Gabrielle stepped forward and blocked them, then she extended her hand to Paladia, baring her forearm as she offered a clasp, her eyes twinkling gently.

Paladia’s eyes narrowed, then she made a face and bared her own arm, grabbing the bard’s inner arm up near her elbow while Cait watched with a pleased but puzzled expression.

“Glad I met you.” Paladia said, briefly.

“Likewise.”  Gabrielle responded, releasing her and returning to Xena’s side, as they moved on.

By the time it was done, the sun was rising and it bathed them as they went out and crossed the open space between the two temples, and the crowd followed them, clustering around the front of the other temple with an air of expectation.

Xena entered,  removing her cloak and facing the altar in her armor and weapons.  She briefly glanced at the picture over the altar before she turned and faced the watchers. “There can be only one offering here.”

Gabrielle stood at the other side of the altar, her hands wrapped around her staff as she watched Xena, watched the crowd outside, and felt the dark energy flow over all of them as surely as water would have.

Xena removed her dagger from it’s sheath and without pausing sliced open the palm of her other hand, waiting a brief moment for the blood to start welling before she held her hand up and spread her fingers, displaying  it to the crowd.

Silence.  Shivers. A prickling of the soul.   

Xena turned and put her hand on the altar, invisibly staining it’s black surface with her blood as the sun tipped over the ridge and came in slantwise through the bodies waiting outside and speckling her with light.

She held it there for a moment, then she moved away and stood to one side.   Before anyone could move outside though,  Gabrielle leaned her staff against the wall and walked forward, quietly removing the long knife she was bearing and cutting a deep cut in her own hand.

She studied it briefly, then she put her hand down on the spot Xena had, mixing their blood together.  Without looking at the gathered crowd, she turned and went back to her partner’s side and held her hand up, waiting as Xena lifted her own and they clasped.

Appropriate, that their first new scars be matching ones. 

The crowd surged forward then, men and women, silent and intent, baring hands and forearms and in Bennu’s case, foreheads as they added their blood to the altar and the copper scent of it grew to fill the shrine.

Solari had been the first Amazon to reach the altar, and as she moved away she paused before them, and reached out to put her cut hand over their clasped ones, leaving a stain of her own blood on them before she left.

Gabrielle very gently cleared her throat, but the word silently spread and soon their hands were covered outside with crimson drying to rusty brown.

It was what it was.

**

The celebrants moved down to the festival grounds across the river, and the area was packed with stands and wagons, the hide tents, brought out by the army, protecting everyone from the cold air. 

Music reverberated, and on the stage at the far end of the festival area a group of players were gathering, making ready to put on a show.

There were tables spread out and on the far side of the square was a cookpit, staffed by Cyrene’s kitchen help who were busy putting out platters of meats and tubers, while several casks of winter ale had been rolled down and set up near by.

Business was booming. There was a giddiness present you could hear in the laughter and the shouts of encouragement as nearby a group of people played darts and others fought in a friendly arm wrestle.

Xena was sprawled in a fur lined chair, a mug of ale gripped in one hand while the other, bandaged, rested on her knee.  She was glad the day was nearing it’s end, the rich golden light of sunset visible outside the tent edge, a the flaps rustling in a cold breeze coming down from the mountain.

There was the sense of an ending, at least for now, a contentment that would enjoy the peace of the moment, and the coming solstice glad of what they had, and what they had given.

Everyone counted it a success.  Even Xena had been surprised with the number of people, town, village and visitors who had come up to her and said how happy they were with the new shrines. 

Some, because they had missed the worship of the gods.  Some, because they felt that any protection was a good thing.  Some, who had gone with her to war, because they had come to a personal knowledge of the gods unexpectedly.

Some, because they saw the commercial possibilities in making Amphipolis a pilgrimage.  Xena’s lips twisted into a wry smile.  Athens and Amphipolis were not all that different in that regard.

The biggest new thing was tiny replicas of the new shrines, built by enterprising hucksters who had been up to them and brought down dead branches and with that, and string and imagination had cooked up little mock ups for sale.

Couldn’t make enough of them.   Already, some of the merchants were making plans to carry some back towards Therma and once there, she knew word would carry to Athens. And then?

And then. Whatever then turned out to be, it would.  Xena wriggled into a more comfortable position, drawing up one knee and resting it on the arm of her chair, idly watching the troops in half armor – her armor – enjoy themselves.

Cait came over to her and sat down on a stool.  “My goodness.”

Xena shifted her attention to her friend. “What’s up?”  She regarded the young Amazon’s face, which had gained a new maturity over the past weeks.

“If Pally does all the sketches she’s being asked, she’ll be doing nothing else for seasons.”  Cait indicated the crowd around her partner.  “The dinars they’re offering!”

“She’s got a real talent.” Xena said. “She can always say no.”

“Too right.”  Cait said, to both statements. “One of that lot said she should go to Athens.”

Xena snorted.

“Yes, that’s what I said.”  Cait produced a wry grin.  “But Xena, what really is all this? What does it mean?” She asked. “I thought you weren’t much for the gods.”

“Maybe I was wrong.”  Xena replied, thoughtfully. “Maybe we do need them. “

“Maybe they need us more like it.”  Cait grinned.  “Don’t you think?”

Xena sighed, then paused as Gabrielle emerged from the crowd and headed in her direction, their eyes meeting as the bard evaded servers and hucksters and family.  She could read amusement, bemusement and resignation in the bard’s body language. “Hey.”

Gabrielle perched on the sturdy wooden arm of the chair and leaned her elbow on Xena’s shoulder. “Hey.” She returned the greeting, giving Cait a brief smile. “What a circus.”

Xena offered her the mug.

“Gabrielle, I heard you were going to tell that story again, the one from the cave.”  Cait spoke up. “Is that true?”

“True.”  The bard handed back the mug after taking a swallow. “This seems like the right place for it. Everyone’s still jazzed from the consecration this morning.”  She leaned over and gently blew in Xena’s ear. “This is going to end up going in all sorts of crazy and maybe bad directions.” She whispered after that.

“I know.”   Xena extended her long legs and crossed them at the ankles.  “But maybe if we’ve got these here to protect the area, we won’t have to.”

“Hm.”

“Hm.”

**

The sunset painted the ridge from the opposite direction than the morning, sending slices of deep gold across the cold ground and into the shrines,  gilding a tall, leather clad form sitting on the rock Xena had sung from.

His legs were played out, and he was leaning back on his hands, regarding the valley with a thoughtful yet benign expression.

“Oh, Ares. They did a good job!”  Aphrodite came out of her shrine and joined him. “It ain’t marble and gold, but its nice.”

Ares tipped back his head.  “Yeah.”  He agreed. “Not bad.”  He got up and turned around, going into his shrine and regarding the altar with it’s deep crimson stain.  “Lot of good jazz in here.”

Aphrodite inched in, not without a grimace. “Oh, ugh.” 

Ares chuckled, then sobered.   He walked over to the altar and put his hands on it, then nodded and took a half step back, drawing his sword out.  “They did more than they knew.”

“You gonna tell them?”

“No.”  Ares sighted down the blade, then lifted it up, letting it touch his forehead for a long moment, eyes closed.  “I accept.” He uttered softly, as he ran his free hand along the blade.  “And return.”

He lifted his hand off the blade and turned it palm down most, dripping red in the gold light before he put it firmly down on the altar, adding his blood to the rest.

Aphrodite shivered.

The altar crackled, shivering itself and then lighting from within with a deep faint reflection that extended to include Ares, gilding him, and his sword in it for a long, breathless moment.

Then he lifted his hand and the glow around him faded as he re sheathed his sword, turning to regard Aphrodite.  Behind him, the altar retained it’s deep fire and the oil lamps flickered now with an internal depth. 

He winked at her. “Wanna join us?”

“Ares, I can’t.” Aphrodite made a face, hugging herself with both arms. “Gross.”

“Gabrielle did.”  He needled her.

“Part of her belongs to you.”  Aphrodite responded. “Just like part of Xena now belongs to me.”

“Yeah, yeah.”  Ares sheathed the Sword of War.  “C’mon. You got better snacks in yours.”

With a relieved smile, Aphrodite led the way over to her shrine and they walked inside.  Soo much nicer in here.”

Ares rolled his eyes.

Aphrodite handed him one of the little cakes from Cyrene’s kitchen. “It’s nice.” She looked around her space.  “Look.” She lifted up one of the spun wool shawls in creamy white. “Soft.”

Ares dusted his fingers off.  “Nice.” He agreed, then reached over and lifted the apple off the center of the stone. “Ready to accept your new pad?” He inspected the apple. “Nice they figured this out.”

Aphrodite moved over to where he was standing and leaned against the altar. “You should tell Xena the score.” She said seriously.  “She kinda deserves to know, you  know?”

“She doesn’t remember.”

“She might.” Aphrodite took the apple from him and took a bite of it. “She already knows it was some kinda scam of ours.”

Ares sighed. “She might.” He admitted. “I’ll think about it.”  

“It was a pretty sweet scam.”  Aphrodite offered him the apple, holding it out for him to take a bite of it “You got a lot of eternity points for it.”

Ares chewed and winked at her.

The goddess of love put the bitten apple down on the altar, and then laid one hand on it gently, bringing a sprinkle of sparkling light to it.   “I accept.” She then reached over and hooked a finger into Ares leather vest and pulled him closer.

Hastily, he swallowed, then inclined his head and they kissed.

“And return.”  Aphrodite murmured, taking a breath and pressing closer to him. “Big time.”

**

The festival finally ended in the small hours of the morning and that late hour found Xena and Gabrielle making their way up the slope together, leaving a happy shambles behind them. 

They climbed steadily upward, breath fogging, in companionable silence until they reached the fork and paused.  “Chances are.”  Gabrielle said, clearing her throat. “There’s hot water already on inside there.”

“Tea sounds good.” Xena agreed, as she steered her steps towards the Amazon village. “Your throat must be killing you.”

“Ugh.”

“Good story, though.”

They passed the guardhouse, the Amazon guards coming out to salute them respectfully, then ducking back inside the warmth.

They continued on, up the slope to the central plateau the village was built on,  seeing candles flickering inside led glassed windows in both small huts and the larger dorms,  and lamps lit in the dining hall and outside the gathering hall.

They could hear voices, even at the late hour, and Xena’s sensitive ears for once heard no bitterness in them, and easy happiness in the laughter.  “I think we even pacified the rest of the elders.”  She commented.  Whoda thunk it?”

“Yeah. They even accepted that we did one for Ares and not Artemis.”  The bard mused. “Not after they heard all that back chat from everything.”

Mmph.”

“Someone’s got the fire on.”  Gabrielle commented as they walked up the path to the queen’s quarters.   “Thought I heard a whistle go up ahead of us.”

The fireplace was lit, and candles were glowing on mantel and tables when they entered, and they heard the soft rattle of the water pot already set over the fire.   “Nice.”  Xena unlatched her cloak and hung it up, reaching her hand out to take Gabrielle’s.

It felt good to have warmth around her, and she felt her body relaxing as she removed her armor, setting it on top of the clothing press against the wall.   She paused in that to adjust the bandage on her hand, re-wrapping it a little.

Then she turned her head and looked sideways at Gabrielle, who was standing near the fire watching her.

Gabrielle came over and put her arms around her, closing her eyes and exhaling in contentment. “Don’t want tea after all. Just want you.”

Aw.  Xena found herself agreeing.  “Always.”  She wrapped her arms around Gabrielle in return, and they stood there for a moment, rocking gently back and forth.

They kissed each other, as they undressed, trading furs and leathers for bare skin and finding their way from the fireplace to the bed, getting under the blankets and settling against each other.  “You think they liked the new temples, Xe?”

Xena shrugged, sliding one hand behind Gabrielle’s head and gently cradling it. “Why shouldn’t they?” She kissed the side of her neck, working her way upward.

“It’s not like in Athens.”  Gabrielle said. “I went to one of the temples there. All ivory and gold and all that.”

Xena traced a line down the side of her partner’s face. “We’re not Athens.”

“True.”  Gabrielle conceded, easing closer and resting her hand on Xena’s side. “We’re us.”   She laid a line of kisses down her partner’s breastbone.

“Then lets just be us.”  Xena enjoyed the building passion. “Maybe now they’ll leave us alone.”

Gabrielle paused in her attentions and shifted, going nose to nose with her partner. “When pigs fly, Xena.”

Xena blinked. “If I shoot a flying pig out of the air, willya cook it?”  She tickled Gabrielle’s navel, and they both started laughing. “C’mon.”  Xena pulled her back down. “Before the sun comes up and life goes on.”

**

The End.