Body Heart and Soul
Gabrielle unrolled a little more of her parchment, reading down the length of it as she lay sprawled on the low couch in their cabin.
To her right, on the hearth, a hammered iron pot was gently simmering, a savory steam rising from it and dusting the air inside with the smell of it’s contents, and on the nearby table was a basket with fresh bread and a wrapped up nutcake.
The low table near her held a mug of tea, and she reached over and took a sip of it, wiggling her toes a little as a wash of warmth from the fire toasted her skin gently.
It was late afternoon, moving to evening, and she was happy to be relaxing here for a while as she waited for dinner to cook, Dori playing down in town with her cousins until Xena picked her up.
Here in their cabin, because it was easier for her to cook more complicated stuff up here, and because she’d just felt like a quiet, private night – perhaps because she was aware that the number of those might soon become limited.
She was glad they were going with an army. There was much less chance for Xena to indulge in potentially injurious hijinks when she had her image to burnish but it also meant they’d be the absolute center of attention all the time.
So a quiet night here seemed like a good idea.
And even if that all hadn’t been true, the fact was the furniture in their home was more comfortable than in the queen’s quarters and after running around all day she’d wanted that. She stretched her body out along the soft surface of the couch and relaxed again with a sigh of satisfaction.
Her.. no, their quarters in the village weren’t uncomfortable, by Amazon standards at least. But their cabin had been built for them, pretty much by their own hands and from the private bathing room with warmed water to the goose down filled mattress on the bed it was as plush a place as you could expect to find in the raw wild hinterlands of Greece.
Hedonistic, a little. Gabrielle grinned to herself.
A few hours of hedonism wouldn’t kill either of them. Xena would drive herself nonstop as she always did when they were on the march so if she had a chance to spoil her a little, that was all good too.
She propped her elbow on the couch and hiked up one knee, draping the parchment over it. The scroll held a draft of a new story of hers, and she picked up a quill and dipped it into a pot of ink on he table, scribbling a note in the margin.
Then she put the quill down and picked her mug up, taking a sip as she continued to read.
After a while she rolled up the parchment and set it down then folded her hands over her stomach and let her eyes drift shut. The late sun was flooding through the window and bathing her, and she constructed a moment of perfect contentment to enjoy.
It was quiet. Only the soft pops and crackles of the fire were sounding inside the cabin, and outside she could hear the wind in the branches but it was muted and calm and she let the calmness drape over her.
She felt her breathing slow, and between one breath and the next, sleep took her.
Xena opened the door quietly, having peeked inside the window and seen the figure sprawled on the couch. She eased inside and shut the door behind her, moving noiselessly across the floor over to where Gabrielle was sound asleep.
She sat down on the low table and simply watched her soulmate in silence, as the sunset brought out the highlights in her fair hair and winked softly against the ring around her finger.
Gabrielle’s breathing was deep and slow, her body completely relaxed against the soft, leather covered surface of the couch and she was sorely tempted to just let her stay asleep.
After a moment though she reached over and put her hand on Gabrielle’s arm, squeezing it gently.
Gabrielle’s eyes fluttered open and she turned her head, smiling when her eyes met Xenas. “Hey.”
“Hey.” Xena repeated. “The kids were playing in the barn and they begged me for a little more time.” She said. “So thought I’d come up here and see what you were doing.”
“And caught me napping.” Gabrielle stretched and resettled herself, regarding her soulmate with sleepy pleasure. “I miss our afternoon naps, Xe. But it’s too cold down in the dell this time of year.”
“It is.” The warrior agreed. “Let me get changed and go back down and get our child.” She got up and hung up her cloak, revealing a damp padded shirt that went along with the slicked back wet hair. “I took a dunk in the trough.”
“Oh burr.” Gabrielle grimaced. “You’re going to catch a cold even before we leave.”
Xena ruffled her hair dry and got out of her shirt. “Yeah but I was sweating like a pig.” She went into the bathing room and dried herself off, returning to put on a dry long sleeved tunic she belted around herself. “Enjoy your time out?”
“I did.” Gabrielle had closed her eyes again, and folded her hands over her middle. “It was nice to just sit here and make dumplings for you and chill out for a while. I knew up here I wasn’t going to get any knocks on the door.”
“Mm.” Xena had investigated the pot. “That smells good.”
Gabrielle smiled, opening her eyes to regard her partner. ‘Tell you what. Why don’t you relax since you actually worked your butt off all afternoon and I’ll go down and get Dori.” She sat up and swung her feet off the couch. “Park it, WP.”
Xena didn’t argue. She dropped into the chair near the fire and extended her long legs out, picking up her sword and removing it from it’s sheath. “Deal, mama.” She wiped down the blade, then applied a sharpening stone to it. “By the way, don’t be surprised if our Amazon guest asks you to come up here.”
Gabrielle paused in the act of putting on her cloak. “Oh really?”
“Do I want to know why?”
Xena thoughtfully examined her blade, then glanced past it at Gabrielle. “She might be thinking she doesn’t have much to go home to.”
“Hmm… yeah.” Gabrielle pulled her hood up. “We’ll see. Be back up shortly.” She paused long enough to retrieve her staff and went out the door with it, blinking as the cold wind woke her thoroughly up. “Oh burr.” She repeated. “Someone remind me to pack the double furs when the time comes.”
She snugged her hood closer to her throat and started down the path, glad she got between the trees after the first few minutes and they cut the force of the wind. The shadows were lengthening as the sun dropped behind the hills and she saw a flare of torchlight as the watch station of the village came into view.
Solari was standing next to it with Pony and they both lifted a hand and waved as they spotted her. “Hey there.” Gabrielle slowed to join them. “Everything okay?”
“Sure.” Solari said. “Now that you agreed to take us hunting? It’s all cool.” She grinned at Gabrielle. “Haven’t seen this bunch of crones this happy since we piped that hot water into the bathing room.”
Pony nodded. “S’true.” She said. “They’re all in the gathering hall making arrows and getting all their travel gear aired out.”
“Some of that stuff should be junked. It stinks.” Solari commented.
“That’s great.” Gabrielle said. “I’m glad they’re excited. I know the guys down the hill are too, even though we’re going out in winter.”
“You heading down to the inn?” Solari asked.
“No, the barn to get my kid.” The queen admitted. “If I’m lucky, I’ll get out of there without having to take her and the pony up to my place.”
“Mind if we go with you?” Pony asked. “I need to get a sack of oats for those goats we brought up.”
“Absolutely not.” Gabrielle waved them on and they all went down the lower path heading for the town. “Was it hard to get that herd up here?”
“Nah.” Solari said. “I think they’re mountain goats. They liked the path.”
“Figures. Everyone up there been around goats or do I have to go up and give milking lessons?” The queen asked. “Been a while since I saw livestock in the village.”
“You know how to milk goats?” Pony hazarded. “I thought Potadeia had sheep.”
“I know how to milk pretty much everything.” Gabrielle responded. “Did I not tell you how much Xena likes milk?”
Pony started snickering.
“Ask her about the short enough to milk a sheep joke.”
As it happened they didn’t make town that night. Cait finished setting up her hammock and inspected the secluded grove they were camping in, not really sure what she was looking for but aware of a faint unease nonetheless.
Nothing really specific, just a feeling as though someone was watching her that made her shoulderblades itch.
She circled the camp, hearing nothing but low voices, and the sounds of splashing as people cleaned the road dust off themselves.
In the center of the glade Bennu and a few others had built a small, efficient fire, and everyone had contributed whatever road food they had into a common soup pot that was starting to bubble. They would have that, plus the trail bread they all carried and water from the spring behind the glade.
Cait considered that, then had to privately admit that Gabrielle’s whole idea of teaching people how to cook things was actually quite good. No one really wanted to make a big deal about it, but the stuff they’d been serving in the big hall had gotten quite tasty really and it had ended up a bit of a relief.
But this wasn’t for long after all. She finished her tour around the camp and went back to her hammock, sitting down in it and leaning back.
Mid day tomorrow, the Philiipi men said, they’d be at their town. They hadn’t seen anyone on the road since they’d found the dead merchants, but the reason they’d ended up so late on the road was that everyone seemed a bit nervous and they’d stopped a lot to just have a look around.
Nala emerged from the thicket next to the spring, carrying her waterskin and wiping her lips with the back of her hand. “I think there’s foxes across the way there.” She pointed with one elbow behind her. “I hear them rustling around in the bushes”
“Foxes.” Cait said, thoughtfully.
“Foxes, or maybe small wildcats.” Nala agreed. “Probably aren’t as skittish as they are around us, with all those wolves and dogs around our place.”
“Hm.” Cait got up off her hammock and strolled off, circling the camp again and then ending up near the spring. She knelt at the edge of it and cupped her hands, dipping them in the water and blinking a little at the bone deep chill of it. “Now that’ll be ice soon enough.”
She lifted her hands and took a drink, keeping her ears cocked.
After a moment she heard the rustle. She kept drinking, droplets coming off her fingertips into the water. A long breathe in brought a faint, musky scent to her, and she focused her peripheral vision on where the sounds were coming from.
She heard another rustle, and she let her hands lower, resting them on her thighs and then pushing herself up to her feet. “Hello?”
The noise stopped. Then it started again, this time a little more loudly. Cait walked around the spring and went over to the thick underbrush, warily moving forward with one hand clasped on the hilt of her sword.
She could see leaves moving and she drew her sword, stepping around sideways and moving through the brush to the thicker bushes beyond.
The sound got louder. Cait let out a low whistle, then she jumped through the leaves, raising her blade up over her head and pushing hard through the thick branches and staring down at the ground.
Hard to say who was more surprised, her, or the woman who was tied up and gagged behind the bush. “Hello!” Cait called out. “Over here!”
Everyone started coming through the trees as she sheathed her sword and knelt, pulling the gag out of the woman’s mouth. “My gosh!”
The woman spat weakly. “bigods.”
Bennu and Carolous knelt next to her. “Easy there.” Bennu had his dagger out and he was cutting her bonds. “Get ya loose here.”
“Where are you from?” Carolous asked. “What happened?”
“Hang on you lot.” Nala handed Cait her waterskin. “Give her a drink, she’s had a wad o cloth in her mouth who knows how long.”
The woman gave Nala a grateful look as Bennu gripped her arms and lifted her to a seated position while Cait offered her the waterskin. “Bless.” She finally said. “Thank the gods ye found me.”
She was a rangy, angular woman about Nala’s age dressed in the stout tunic and leggings of the area, and she had light brown hair and a spread of freckles over her nose.
“What happened?” Carolous repeated. “We’re from Philippi.. are you?”
“No.” The woman took more water. “M’name’s Soshi. Live in a village up the river aint even got no name.” She exhaled. “Fella came through, and brought a merry group with im. I was a cook. Next thing I knew they had me tied up and on a wagon.”
“Kidnapped you?” Carolous asked.
“Something like.” Soshi agreed. “Said they were going to sell us where they were going.”
“And where was that?” Nala asked.
“Dunno.” Soshi shook her head. “Was me, two lads, two crazy women, and two men a carpenter and a shepherd. They were moving along and I fell out the wagon and rolled down the ridge there.” She indicated a nearby slope. “Guessed they never missed me.”
“How long ago was that?” Cait asked.
“Day maybe.” The woman looked at them. “Who’re you lot?”
“I am Carolous. Provost of Philppi.” Carolous said. “I have a squad of my men with me, and these others are from Amphipolis.”
The woman’s eyes widened “Amphipolis?” She said. “Heard them what took me talk about that place.”
“I’m sure.” Cait said. “Nala and I are Amazons. We live near there. This is Bennu and his men, they’re soldiers in Xena’s army.”
The woman nodded. “I heard of Xena.” She said. “Two crazy women heard of her too. “ She added thoughtfully as she watched them. “Them that took us was careful to steer clear of the place.”
“How about we bring you by the fire.” Bennu said. “Warm there, and has got some soup.”
“I’d be grateful.” Soshi said. “Thought I would die there, tied up. I heard y’voices, figured if ye found me and ye were the villains again at least you’d let me up.”
Bennu and Jax lifted her to her feet and carefully guided her towards the fire. Cait and Nala followed, leaving Carolous and his men to scour the area, and search the top of the ridge.
“Crazy women.” Nala said, thoughtfully. “Who know big X.”
“You thinking what I am?”
“Could be two other crazy women.” Cait said. “But let’s chat a bit with her, see what we can find out. “ She glanced around as they reached the fire. “Hello, where’s that annoying fellow now I wonder?”
They looked around the camp, but Jake was nowhere to be seen. “Maybe he went with those guys.” Nala pointed to the ridge.
“Maybe.” Cait said, thoughtfully. “But I bet not.”
Gabrielle heard the kids playing before she reached the barn, the giggles and shouts audible through the wooden walls. “Sounds like they’re still crazy.”
She pushed the door open and went inside, with Pony and Solari behind her.
The barn was in disarray, hay bales plopped everywhere with at least a half dozen small bodies scooting around between them. In the stalls the horses were standing and watching the action, chewing their hay.
“What’s going on in here?” Gabrielle asked, curling one hand around her staff and putting the other on her hip. “Oh my gosh what a mess you kids made.”
Dori’s voice came from above her head, and Gabrielle turned and tossed her staff to Solari as she spotted the dark head up in the hayloft. “What are you doing up there young lady?”
“Dis!” Dori chucked something at her, which her mother dodged.
“Hey!” Gabrielle jumped for the edge of the loft, catching onto it with her hands and pulling herself up. “Dori, that’s not nice.”
“You said that again.” Pony had inspected the missile. “It’s a ball of poop.”
Dori giggled, squirming over to where her mother was now perched. “Mama we’re having fuuuuuun!”
Gabrielle gave her an exasperated look, then she looked around beneath the loft. “How did you get up here, honey?”
“Like Boo do.” Dori informed her. “Go fly.”
Gabrielle looked at the ground, then at the watching Amazons, then back at her daughter. “I see. Well how about we all go get washed off, and you come up to our house for dinner.”
“Kin they come too?” Dori asked, pointing at her friends. “Mama they’re hungry.”
The kids had gathered around the base of the support for the loft, and were looking up at them with hopeful eyes. Toris’ boys, little Cari, the weaver’s son, and one of the other girls from the tribe. “Are you hungry?”
“Yes!” The kids chorused, starting to jump up and down.
“Well, then let’s go see what grandma has, then, because we don’t have enough for everyone by us.” Gabrielle turned to take hold of Dori, but she had already squirmed away and was at the other end of the loft, swinging over and starting to climb down. “Dori!”
The child swung from her arms and dropped, landing on the straw with a little hop, then running over to her friends. “Let’s go to gramma!”
Gabrielle exchanged looks with her Amazons then she sighed and swung down from the loft herself, landing with far less grace. “No question on this earth who she takes after.” She said. “Everyone wash their hands over there in the trough before we go to the inn.”
“Eph was right.” Pony got out of the way as the mini herd ran for the water trough. “Glad I’m going to be retired by the time she’s old enough to spar.”
“Got that right.” Solari said, as they went over to help the washing.
“I told Xe she better eat all her vegetables now so she can keep up with this kid. I sure won’t be able to.” Gabrielle mock sighed. ‘I kinda sympathize with Cyrene, you know? What she must have gone through.”
“And she had two other ones.” Solari said. “She’s earned her feathers, that woman has.”
“Do me a favor, Sol?” Gabrielle said. “Run up and tell Xe I’m going to get these kids some food down here.”
“Sure.” Solari agreed instantly. “Be right back.” She skirted the kids and slipped out the door.
Pony stolidly bore the splashing, as she helped Gabrielle get the kids hands clean. “You figure out what you’re going to do with her?”
“When we go?” Gabrielle answered softly. “Not yet. She’s getting to be such a handful I don’t know what the best thing to do with her is going to be.”
“Getting to be?”
“Hold still, Dor.” The queen got her hands clean. “Be good for mama, okay?”
“Hungry!” Dori protested. “Mama, it’s good!”
“Okay all you kids, let’s go.” Gabrielle retrieved her staff and they chased the horde out the door, leaving the placidly chewing horses behind. “Let’s go to grandma’s.”
“I think I lucked out.” Solari said, tearing off a piece of fresh bread and dipping it into the stew in her bowl. “Pony’s gonna whack me.”
Xena was seated across from her busy with her own dinner. “Not gonna waste this on the dogs.” She said. “Gab doesn’t make it that often.”
“It’s good.” Solari agreed. “Now that I sorta know the difference between stuff that is and stuff that isn’t.”
Xena ate one of the dumplings, a smile crossing her face as she remembered the first time her partner had tried them, an experiment when they’d been holed up in a damp cave during a three day rainstorm.
It was a little tricky, and you needed to have both the flour handy, and the venison, and the spices and they didn’t usually have all of them at the same time in the same place. But it had become an instant favorite then, and still was today.
‘Everyone’s jazzed about riding out.” Solari said. ‘But you figured that, huh?”
“I did. Tribe lost a lot of the older ones who fought the last war with us.” Xena said. “Kids want to get their swords blooded.”
“You think we’ll get that chance?”
Xena chewed thoughtfully, then swallowed. “Really hard to say at this point. Depends on what weight my reputation’s going to have with this pirate.”
“You mean, like the whole thing with Therma and the Spartans?”
“That was actually pretty cool.” Solari concluded. “I heard those Spartans talking. That captain was saying he had to get them all out of there before they decided to join up with you.”
Xena smiled, then chuckled softly. “They bought the whole game Gab and I were playing.” She said, resting an elbow on the table and propping her chin up on her fist. “I was glad they did. Everyone pretty much got out of that with a whole skin.”
“Until the wave stuff.”
The warrior nodded as she chewed.
“You think it was the gods, that thing?” Solari asked. “That they were mad?”
Xena considered that for a while as she chewed. Then she swallowed and took a drink from her mug to wash the mouthful down. “Don’t really know. Could have been Poseidon pissed off, but I doubt it. Might just have been one of those things.”
Solari looked skeptical.
“Animals knew something was coming.” Xena clarified. “They don’t much care about the gods.” She leaned back in her chair. “And I saw Ares that night. He would have warned me.”
Solari blinked. Then she went back to her bowl. “All rightie then.”
Xena chuckled again “I’d just done him a favor.”
“That is kinda weird with you guys. Eph said she saw Gabrielle talking to Aphrodite and it’s just weird even SAYING that.” Solari remarked. “I mean they’re the gods, you know?”
“I know.” Xena sipped at her cider. “Eph tell you I had my chance at hanging out with them?”
Solari nodded. “We all figured it wasn’t’ much of a choice for ya.” She said, after a moment. “I mean, y’know Xena we sorta got it after Dori, even the old crones in the village figured out it just wasn’t worth messing with you. You know?”
“I mean, you and Toris don’t look that much alike. That kid looks like you. Not like him.” Solari clarified.
“We’re half sibs.” Xena admitted. “There’s a family resemblance but yeah.” She hitched one knee up and rested her hand on it. “Mom and I had a long talk about it after we got back last time.”
“Weird?” Solari ventured.
“Yeah.” Xena smiled ruefully. “Really weird.”
“I can’t even freaking imagine.” Solari shook her head. “I’m glad all my relatives are just people.”
“They’re shades of gray just like everyone down here is.” The warrior said. “Now with two of them stuck here as mortals, they’re the ones with a big problem.”
Now it was Solari’s turn to chew thoughtfully while she watched the pale eyes and angular profile across from her. “You figuring to help them out?”
“You think those two are in that port place?”
“You figure to keel over from the friggen irony of you taking an army from here to go get them?”
Xena started laughing, lifting a hand and letting it drop, then cutting off the sound abruptly and standing, reaching over to draw her sword from it’s sheath as she moved past where Solari was sitting and headed for the door.
“Oh boy.” The Amazon hastily got up and grabbed her own weapon, turning as Xena yanked the iron handle and threw the door open, letting a blast of cold air in.
A tall figure stood there and after a moment of absolute stillness, lurched forward and fell inside.
“Thanks mom.” Gabrielle leaned against the counter watching the kids scarf down their dinner. “I just knew I didn’t make enough for this horde.”
“And I’m sure you didn’t want them overrunning the place up there either. “Cyrene nudged her. “No trouble, my dear. This is an inn, after all.”
“True.” She picked up her piece of bread and dunked it in the soup next to her. “They made a mess of the barn. Straw bales everywhere.”
“It’s a barn.” Her mother in law said, in a tolerant tone.
“I know, but still.” Gabrielle said. “And Dori’s figured out how to climb up into the hayloft.”
“Uh oh.” Cyrene covered her eyes.
The bard sighed, shaking her head while she chewed. “Wait till Xe hears. Especially when asked, my kid tells me she does it like Boo do.”
They both looked up as the inside door opened, and one of the watch captains entered. “Gabrielle, glad you’re here.” He said without preamble. “Someone’s riding hard for the lower gates and being chased.”
“Okay.” Gabrielle abandoned her soup. “Get a squad together and go out to meet them. Lets get the rider in if they’re so determined to get here.” She looked over at Cyrene who waved her out. “I’ll go with you.”
She slipped from behind the counter and got her cloak on, grabbing her staff as she followed the captain out through the kitchen. “Any idea who the rider is?”
“No, ma’am.” The captain shook his head “Too far out to see clear, and it’s dark.” He headed down the path to the barracks at a trot, lifting a whistle into the air. “Just know they’re going like hades.”
The front of the barracks was already open by the time they got there, and armored bodies were pouring out. “Need a dozen riders.” Gabrielle called out. “We’ve got someone headed here someone wants to stop.”
“Got it.” One of the men said. “Jarus, get your squad going.”
“Lets get another dozen or so at the gates, just in case.” The bard ordered. “And a healer. “
Hoofbeats sounded, and the doors of the cavalry barn swung open, torches fluttering and outlining the big, solid bodies moving out. The soldiers mounted and started towards the gates, brief red highlights flashing off armor and weapons.
Gabrielle took the footpath and broke into a run, aiming for the lower gates, where torches were flaring also into life and someone was feeding the firepit nearby.
It was cold, and she blinked into the chill as she felt it hit her eyeballs, drawing in a breath of air already tinged with woodsmoke.
A motion startled her, and she almost swerved on the path before she recognized Ares furry body as he joined her and loped alongside. “Hey boy.”
“Groou.” The wolf yodeled a little, keeping pace with her.
Gabrielle didn’t stop to question it. She got her breath and crossed the bridge, then headed downslope to the market area tucked safely behind the stout wooden barricade, as she heard the thunder of horses coming down the main road behind her.
The watch was already thick at the gates when she got there, and they turned as she slowed so as not to plow into them, hearing her name on more than one set of lips. “Okay, how close are they?”
“Here, look.” One of them stepped back from a tiny hatch in the gates. “Not far, maybe quarter candlemark.”
Gabrielle took a look, then glanced behind her where the squad of cavalry were thundering up. “Gates clear on either side?” She could see one figure heading their way, with a bunch behind it, all yelling.”
“Open the gates.” The bard called out in a loud voice. “Let the troops through.”
Without hesitation, without question, the men obeyed her, loosing the hatches and shoving the gates open. “Go!” Gabrielle swept her staff in a forward motion, and the troops went from standing to a gallop in a breath, barreling past her and heading up the road.
“Figure that’s a friendly?” The gatekeeper asked Gabrielle, pointing at the lone rider.
“Well.” Gabrielle grounded her staff and wrapped her hand around it. “They want badly to get here. Bad guys usually don’t.”
“Not if they know Xena, for sure. “ The man agreed.
The oncoming horse was laboring, she could now see, from the light of the moon that came out from behind the thick clouds. The figure on it’s back was tall, and had a cloak on, but she couldn’t see any visible weapons.
All good. The troops were almost on him, and now, she could see the chasers starting to pull shy on seeing the force coming out to meet them. Xena’s men drew their weapons as they flashed past the single rider and let out battle yells.
“See em. Turning tail.” The gateman said, in a satisfied tone. “Get back from the entry, let this traveler in.”
Two of the healers from the barracks had arrived and ran to one side of the gate, putting down their kits.
All of them in leather overtunics, all with Xena’s hawkshead symbol on them. Gabrielle took a moment to acknowledge the wry pride in that, at this group of soldiers who answered to her as readily as they did her partner.
Then she went around the edge of the gate to see the oncoming rider, and a gust of wind blew his hood back off his face and revealed someone she most surely knew. ‘”Hercules!” She let out a yell, as he let his mount slow at last, his eyes finding hers as he passed through the gates to safety.
Oh boy. The bard raced to his side, glancing out the gates to see the chasers now chased, and hearing the ring of steel and the thunk of arrows as they were cut down. “Grab his horse! Get some water!”
He tumbled off, but onto his feet as she reached him, putting a hand on her staff to steady himself. “Where’s Xena?”
“Up the hill.” She handed him a waterskin as they led his exhausted horse away. “You all right?”
He shook his head, drinking in silence. Then he swallowed. “Gotta talk to her.” He said. “Thanks for the rescue.”
Gabrielle turned, taking a breath, then relaxed. “She’s coming” She said. “Come over here and sit down.”
“Damn good idea.”
They gathered in Cyrene’s kitchen, away from the curious eyes in the outer room. Hercules was pathetically glad to slump on a bench at the kitchen table while Cyrene bustled around getting a bowl of food put together for him.
Xena took the opposite seat, stepping around behind Gabrielle and putting both hands on her shoulders as she leaned forward to whisper in her ear.
She felt the bard’s body stiffen and tense under her grip, as she turned to look up at Xena with widened, startled eyes.
Xena’s face twitched into wry agreement, but she sat down without further comment, picking up the mug of ale her partner had been drinking and took a long swallow of it.
“We are in some deep crap.” Hercules said, as he put down his own mug. “You can’t wait any longer, Xena. We’ve got to go get them.”
“Uh huh.” Xena propped her head up on her hand. “Iolaus said you were trapped up there.”
“They lost the ability to hold me.” Hercules said, bluntly. “Everything’s falling apart faster than they realized. I know it’s hard to believe.”
“Not really. Your brother’s up at my place lying on my couch being guarded by freaked out Amazons.” Xena responded. “I figured something happened.”
Everyone went quiet, Cyrene stopping with the bowl in her hands on the way to the table as she stared at her daughter.
“Ares?” Hercules watched her nod. “Crap. Can’t say I’m surprised though.”
Gabrielle had her hand covering her eyes. She removed it and leaned back. “So we’ve got to move out.”
“Yes.” Hercules said. “If we don’t recover my sisters before they’re uncovered this is going to go past my father’s ability to fix it.”
Another long silence, broken by Cyrene putting the bowl down and handing Hercules a spoon. Then the innkeeper sat down and studied all of them. “So let me ask you.” She finally said. “If they fix this, will they finally get left alone?”
Hercules took a breath but Xena spoke before he could. “It doesn’t matter.” She said. “Gabrielle and I talked about that. It’s the right thing to do so we’re going to do it.”
“That’s silly.” Cyrene said. “At what point will the two of you think of yourselves and your daughter instead of everyone else?”
“Probably never.” Gabrielle readily admitted. “So let me go head up the hill and fill my tribe in on what’s going on.” She stood up. “Xe, you figure leaving at dawn?”
“Sooner if we can.” Xena exhaled. “I sent Solari down to the barracks before I came over here.”
Hercules looked relieved, obviously having expected an argument. “Thanks guys.” He said simply.
Xena waved a hand in dismissal. “Iolaus knew. Wish he’d talked to us before he left – we might have gone with him.” She said. “His note said he just felt like he needed to get started.”
“My fault.” The demigod admitted.
“Water under the bridge.” Gabrielle sighed, as she got up. “Let me take the kids home too.” She pulled her cloak on. “So much for a nice relaxing night.” She headed out the door to the main room, where childish giggling could be heard.
Cyrene shook her head, and got to her feet. “Let me get things ready for dinner. Place’ll be packed in a half candlemark once word gets out.” She glanced at Xena. “I”ll watch Dori for you?”
Xena returned the look. “I’m going to leave her with Jess.” She said. “I don’t want to expose either you or Amphipolis to anyone who thinks it might be a good idea to get some leverage on me with her.”
Cyrene paused and regarded her thoughtfully. “Aren’t you going to go out to hunt them?” She asked. ‘Why would they come here?”
Her daughter smiled. “Maybe I just don’t want to inflect HER on either Amphipolis or the Amazons” She countered. “I got a message back today from Jess that he and his bunch’ll take care of her, and the valley is more or less on the way. So she’ll get ot come with us, and, when we get there, she’s got good reason to stay.”
“Those little furry kids?”
“Eh.” Cyrene smiled finally. “You might have a point there.” She pushed through the door and let it swing shut behind her, leaving Hercules and Xena alone in the kitchen.
They regarded each other in silence as Hercules inhaled the stew in the bowl Cyrene had given him, the sounds of the cookfire popping gently in the background. Xena waited, sipping on the ale Gabrielle had left behind.
He finally put his spoon down. “So what did Ares tell you?”
“Not a lot.” Xena answered promptly. “ He was half frozen. Left him to thaw next to the fire. Something about this being the end of everything.”
“Mm.” Hercules picked up his mug and took a swallow. “All I can tell you is, one minute I was up there, stuck in a cloud the next thing I knew I was rolling down a hillside, right into a bunch of bandits. Jumped me before I could get my wits together and I just managed to get past them by diving in the river.”
“The river? Our river out there?” Xena pointed over her shoulder.
“Climbed out and found four horses tied to a tree.” He confirmed. “I grabbed one of them, and took off. Turns out there were more than four and that’s what was chasing me into town.”
“They chased you for stealing the horse?”
Hercules nodded. “For once. I’m guilty as charged. I did steal the horse.” He agreed. “I just didn’t have time to explain to those guys why I needed to.”
“Huh. Remind me to tell the council in case those guys come back and want their pound of flesh.” Xena said. “Any idea who they were?”
He shook his head. “Too dark, too desperate me.”
“Tch tch.” Xena gave him a wry smile. “I think we better head up to my place. Ares must have thawed out by now and maybe he can tell us the rest of the story.”
Hercules made a face, but drained his mug and set it down, pushing himself to his feet and unwrapping the square of linen Cyrene had given him to dry himself off. “You really ready to head out?”
“Ready as we can be.” Xena also stood up. “You got anything warmer than that to wear on the road?”
Hercules glanced down at the light, white fabric draping his body. “Not so much.”
“We’ll stop by Toris’ place first. He’s about your size.”
“Honey, we need to get packed.” Gabrielle called into the back room, where Dori had run into. “Bring mama out the stuff you want to take okay?”
“Mama.” Dori came out with her little bag and a toy clutched in one hand. “Where we go now?”
Gabrielle sighed internally. “We’re going to see our friends the forest people. You remember them, right? Your buddies Butterbean and Gaby and Warin?”
Dori perked up a little. “Yes mama! I have fun with them.” She agreed. “But can we take my friends from here too? And Wusty?”
Gabrielle sat down in the chair in her quarters and faced her daughter. “Absolutely we can take Rusty, honey. You have to be able to go fast with us, right?”
“But I think your friends have to stay here, because .. “ The bard paused. “Well, because our friends the forest people don’t know about them.”
Dori pouted, her lower lip jutting out.
“Aw.” Gabrielle hugged her. “I’m sorry, honey. I know you like your friends here, and you have fun with them.” She paused again and studied her child. “Xena and I have to go do something, and that’s why were taking you to the forest people, so you can be safe while we do that.”
Dori looked uncertainly at her. “You go?”
“We have to.” The bard said, in a serious tone. “But we want you to have as much fun as you can while we go do this thing, so we thought you would like to go visit your friends in the valley. Would you rather stay here, with Auntie Eff and Pony?”
Dori put her doll on the table. “I go with you mama?” She asked, plaintively.
“This time you can’t, sweetheart.” Gabrielle answered gently. “You can come with us to the valley, but after that, we have to go very fast, and it will be dangerous, so you can’t.”
“Wusty go fast.”
“He does, but not as fast as Argo and Io. This isn’t like the other trips we took with you, Dori. We can’t stop and have fun, and find fishes.”
“No, no fun for us this time. It will be like when you were with me when we were trying to get to Boo in the city, you remember that? How hard that was?”
Dori frowned, then looked at her mother. “With all the bad mens going after us?”
“Yeah, remember that? It wasn’t any fun.”
“Den why you and Boo have to do that, mama?” Dori asked, with obvious to her logic. “You stay with the pipples too and we all have fun.”
Gabrielle studied her quietly. “Doriana.” She finally said. “I’m glad you’re really too young to understand why we can’t.” She smoothed Dori’s hair back. “Sometimes, I wish I were a little girl like you again, and everything was so much simpler.”
“You come!” Dori insisted.
Gabrielle rested her elbows on her knees. “Well, sorry abou that. We can’t.” She said. “So – tell me. What would you rather do? You want to go spend time with the forest people and your friends there, or stay with your friends here? You can have fun either way.”
Dori edged closer. “Go with mama.”
“Aw.” The bard said, again, circling her with both arms. “Sorry about that, Dor. You can come with us until we get to the forest people’s place, okay? Then Boo and I have to go do something and we’ll be back soon to get you.”
Dor was briefly silent. Then she tugged at her mother’s hand. “Mama, but can’t we bring my friends? They’d like the fuzzy people too.”
“Honey I..” Then Gabrielle paused. “I don’t know if we can take them all, honey… but how would you like it if we took your friend Cari with us? Would you like that?”
Dori perked up at once. “Yes, mama!” She agreed. “And Lolo?”
Her mother eyed her. “Honey, you know I think I know what you inherited from your mama. No you can’t have all your friends, but I’ll ask Boo if we can take Cari too. That’s going to have to satisfy you, little lady.”
Dori pouted at her again, but Gabrielle pouted right back and they both ended up laughing. “Now get the rest of your stuff, okay?” The bard gave her a pat on the behind. “Need to get us buttoned up and then get some rest.”
“Okay mama.” Dori was apparently now resigned to the plan. She pattered back into the sleeping room, where she had her toys and started sorting them.
Gabrielle got up and shook her head, then she went back to her carrybag and continued her own packing. She opened the pair of saddle bags resting on her work table and slid her diary into one of them, walking over to the clothing press to remove a stack of shirts.
“So.” Ephiny’s voice sounded at the door. “Things are going to Hades faster than we thought.”
“They are.” Gabrielle waved her in. “There’s hot water on.”
Her regent crossed the room and went to the fireplace, setting up two cups and pouring herbs into them. “You’ve got the whole tribe in a tiz. The group going with you is so excited they’re running around like chickens with no heads packing.”
“Eh, that’ll last for a day or two.” Gabrielle predicted, as she tucked her cooking gear into a bag. “Until they realize how damned uncomfortable all that marching is.”
“Says the woman who writes poems to the rocks under Xena’s pillow.”
The bard chuckled.
Gabrielle turned her head towards her friend. “Eph?”
“It’s really serious, isn’t it?” Ephiny said, as she poured the water over the herbs, pushing her curly hair back behind one ear as she regarded Gabrielle soberly. “This thing with the gods?”
“They brought it on themselves.” Her queen responded. “But of course they don’t look at it that way. Yeah, I think it is serious, for them.”
“So.” Ephiny stirred the cups. “What does that mean for Xena?” She asked. “I mean, well, I guess it doesn’t really mean that much because of that last whole thing right?”
Hm. Good question. “I don’t know.” She answered slowly. “I haven’t really thought about it.. I don’t think Xe has either.”
“So maybe if we pull this off, they’ll finally cut you some slack?” Ephiny suggested. “I mean, they could you know?”
“They could.” Her queen agreed. ‘I think the best I could hope for is that we just get left alone.” She tucked two spare sets of Xena’s leathers in her saddle bag and then went to the press for a double handful of socks.
They both turned at a knock on the door. “C’mon in.” Gabrielle called out.
It opened, and Paladia stuck her head in. “Hi.”
“Hi.” The queen responded cordially. “Xe get back up to the cabin?”
“Yeah.” Paladia agreed. “I’ve done a lot of freaky things around you guys, that was the freakiest.” She stated. “”Anyway. I can go with the rest of these crazy women right?”
“Good.” Paladia said. “Is he going too?” She jerked her head in the direction of the cabin.
“That’s Xena’s decision.”
“Phoo.” Paladia disappeared and shut the door behind her.
“You think she’ll leave him here?” Ephiny asked. “Hera’s breastplate, Gabrielle. Maybe I’ll go to the valley with the fuzzies too.”
Cait circled the camp, her eyes flicking amongst the shadows. Near the fire, the men from Phillipi and Xena’s troops were talking to their rescued prisoner, who was repaying her rescue by demonstrating her cooking skills.
That was good. Cait appreciated that. But it didn’t change the fact that Jake was missing and her vague distrust of him was solidifying into an absolute suspicion.
She spotted Nala coming around from the other direction, the older Amazon wringing her hair out as she reached where Cait was standing. “Anything that way?”
“Nothing.” Nala looked around. “Maybe he decided to go hunt for a mate somewhere else? I mean, good riddance, you know?”
‘No, I know. “ Cait walked with her over to the small glade theyd set up their hammocks in and sat down on hers. It was the Phillipis turn to watch, and so they could relax if they wanted to but Cait felt keyed up, and the wind kept bringing her ears faint signals.
Small animals, yes. But also, right on the fringes, a brush of leaves against larger bodies that made her think of soldiers, in wait, just making those small motions men do when they’re on watch.
“Cait. “ Bennu pushed his way through the hedges and came over to her. “What do you say? We should send work back to the genrl.”
Cait looked past him to where the Phillipi men were gathering, some donning cloaks for their night watch. “I think we should turn back, and go home.” She said. “Something’s not right, and I can’t pin what it is.”
“Don’t think we can do that, lass.” Bennu said, reluctantly. “Them folks expect us to form up with em, and she said we needed to see what was up.”
No need to wonder who the she was. Cait folded her arms and exhaled. For Bennu there was only one ‘she’. “It’s no good, Bennu. There’s something quite rot around here. If we keep on, there’s trouble coming.”
“Trouble coming anyway.” Nala said pragmatically. “But I think we should send someone back. I got a bad feeling in my guts, same as Cait.”
“Before someone jumps on us.” Cait added, darkly.
“You still hunting that missing lad?” Bennu asked. “Figgure he just got bored with himself and ran off.” He started to turn, then went still, his ears visibly twitching. “Psh”
Cait had heard it. “Someone’s coming!” She said, loudly, pulling her sword from its sheath. “Ware!”
Xena hoisted Argo’s saddle up and over her back, settling it in place over the thick, worn saddle pad. “Sorry about this girl.” She reached under the horse to grab the girthstrap and got it threaded into the double ring holder.
Argo kept chewing on her hay net, sparing the occasional look at her rider as she finished getting her tack in place.
“But we’ve got you nice and rugged up. “ Xena concluded, straightening the woven wool blanket that covered the mare from her neck to her tail, all in black with yellow trimmings. “So that should be a little more comfortable for ya.”
Io was watching her from the next stall with an expectant look on his face. His saddle and bridle were still hung over the partition, waiting for Xena’s attention in it’s turn.
Down at the barracks, her cavalry were getting ready in much larger numbers. The grooms there would have, of course, been glad to gear up her animals too, but everyone knew her preferences in that realm and so no one had even asked.
Xena gave Argo a pat, draping her bridle over her neck but leaving it unfastened as she moved over to Iolaus’ stall.
Across from them Rusty was already tacked up, his head over the rope at the front of his stall, ears forward in anticipation.
“You ready for another adventure, little man?” Xena asked, as she circled around Io. “I’m sure you’d all rather be staying here instead of going out in that weather, but that’s life.”
The door opened, and Toris came in. “Hey sis.”
“Hey.” Xena got Io’s saddle settled. “I’m going to get these guys ready and then move them down to the barracks stables. Supply wagons are almost set.”
“I saw.” Toris came over and let his arms rest on the stall divider. “Rumors are flying. What do you want us to tell the rest of the town?”
“Where the army’s going? Why the army’s going?” Her brother asked. “You want to stick with the port city story?”
Xena rested her hands on Io’s saddle and regarded her brother. “Hm.”
“Yeah.” Toris agreed wryly. “I assume you’re going to tell the army what the deal is once they get out of here and heading to the pass.”
Xena pondered that. “They’ll know. Just not sure when.” She said. “We should tell the council what the real story is, but yeah, keep it simple to everyone else.”
Toris nodded. “Telling everyone the truth – usually I’m all for that but this time? Not so much.” He said. “I’m hoping you make things all better and we can just move along.”
Xena smiled briefly. “I’ll do my best.”
“The boys are going to miss their cousin.” Her brother changed the subject. “Solon was complaining that Dori gets to go do all the fun stuff and they have to stay here.”
“Yeah.” His sister sighed. “Gabrielle caved and agreed to take her little friend with us.” She said. “I was torn between leaving her here or by Jess, but you know – there’s really no safe place if I’m honest.”
“No.” Toris agreed. “But if it gets bad here, for any reason, I told Gran we’ll take the kids and go join her in the valley. It’s the most defendable place in the area.”
“You’ll be all right here I’m leaving half the army, and half the Amazons.” Xena said, as she finished her work. “No sense in my taking more. It’s going to be a race as it is.” She dropped the rope at the front of the stall. “Want to grab the pony and walk down with me?”
“Sure.” Toris went to Rusty’s stall and unhooked the rope there. “I’ll have plenty of time to sleep after you leave.”
“Rub it in.”
“Hey, you’re the answer to everyone’s prayers around here. Suck it up, sis.”
Gabrielle sat down in one of the leather chairs in her cabin and regarded the tall figure on the couch opposite her. “Feeling better?”
Ares eyed her grumpily. “Yuck it up, blondie.”
“I’m not laughing.” The bard replied. “I don’t’ think this is even remotely funny.”
He scowled. “This is just one big mess.” He said. “Stupid women.”
“Be fair, Ares. It wasn’t your sisters who made themselves mortal.” Gabrielle said. “I’m sure no one wanted things to end up this way.” She got up and went to the fireplace, scooping herself a bowl of soup from the pot hanging over the fire.
“Old lady said you clued her.” Ares said, as she sat back down across from him.
“Me?” Gabrielle’s pale brows lifted. “When did I do .. oh.” She remembered a moment by the sea. “You mean when I told her I was going to convince people not to believe you all?”
The tall god nodded. “Freak city.” He said. “She came back and told us all to leave you alone.”
“Should have tried that a lot time ago.” Gabrielle sipped from her bowl, watching him over the rim. “She got me pissed off, after all that, and everything we did.”
Ares picked up his own bowl that had been sitting on the table and took a sip from it. “She’s a traditionalist. Doesn’t like us mixing with mortals.”
“So she let Zeus make your sisters that way?”
He shrugged. “I stay out of those fights.” He glanced at Gabrielle. “The only ones I stay out of so don’t get any ideas.’
Gabrielle leaned back and balanced her bowl between her fingers. Ares was in his standard black leather outfit, but he had a thick blanket wrapped around his shoulders and was barefoot, his boots drying near the fire. “So what happened?”
“Damned if I know. I was up in my room, trying to get a little war going over in the north and then next thing I knew I was falling through some clouds into some lake.” Ares said, his eyes flicking to hers. “Never felt cold before.”
“Are you..” Gabrielle paused. “Sort of mortal again?’
Ares snapped his fingers, and blue fire happened. Then he lifted his hand and waggled it, and went back to his soup. “But I think I’m stuck down here.” He said. “No way to get back upstairs, dig?”
“Yeah.” She nodded. “That’s sort of what happened to Hercules. He was trapped one minute, tumbling down a hill here the next.”
Ares snorted. “Goody two shoes. All I heard him talking about was his little friend and how unfair it all was.”
“Why was he being kept up there, Ares? Wouldn’t it have been better to let him stay where he was, he was trying to help your sisters.” Gabrielle wondered. “It all seems so crazy.”
Ares drained his bowl and set it down, regarding it with mild surprise. “No idea what that is, but it wasn’t bad.” He said. “The deal was, they figured if they kept Porkules out of the picture, the grunts down here wouldn’t put two and two together and figure out who the girls were.”
“Ah. But didn’t they realize they’d be in danger?”
“No. We’re gods.” Ares said, bluntly. “No one thinks dirtgrubbers are dangerous.”
Both of Gabrielle’s eyebrows shot up.
“Yeah, I know. Shut up.” Ares reclined back on the couch. “Where’s Xena?”
“Getting the army ready to go.” Gabrielle shook her head slightly. “And speaking of that, we should find you something warm to wear if you’re going with us.” She paused. “You are going with us, right?”
Ares wiggled his toes, and regarded the ceiling. “Hm.. now that you mention it this isn’t so bad for a dirtgrubber’s hut.” He looked around, with a faint smirk. “I could get used to this.”
Unexpectedly he chuckled. “Lighten up, blondie. I’m not going to take over your pad. If I can horn in on this gig, and get the chicks out of trouble, I win big with daddy. Catch my drift?”
‘Of course. Altruistic as always.”
“Hey. Be nice.”
Cait found herself back to back with Bennu, as they became the center of a rush of attackers. They were both on foot and horseback, and she got a sense that there were a lot of them. “Bother.”
“Yah.” Bennu grunted, as he deflected a mace and then ducked, turning and backhanding his sword to chop at the neck of the horseman going past. There was a crunching sound and in the shadows the man fell off the horse, who bucked in reaction and stumbled into another attacker.
There were knots of bodies everywhere around them, and Cait was both more than glad to be by Bennu and worried about Nala and the horse Shadow she’d left grazing nearby. She concentrated on the flash of the flickering firelight against a sword as it came at her, and she dodged a half armored body wielding it.
She turned as he came past and plunged her sword into his side, feeling the crunch and twitch of bones cracking as he swerved and the blade tore through him.
With a gasp he fell, slamming into a tree. Cait yanked her sword back and turned it point backwards, then pulled a long, thin dagger from her boot and whipped it across his throat.
Blood flew and she felt the heat of it spattering against her hands, as she turned and left the body behind, sure it could do them no more damage.
Bennu was fighting with two men, both hammering at him with heavy two handed broadswords. Cait slid sideways and buried her dagger into the gut of one of them, too busy with his attack to see her approach. She kicked him off the blade and then ducked and turned again, sensing a presence at her back.
That, Xena had taught her. That claiming of the space you were in that made the warrior seem like she had eyes in the back of her head. Cait didn’t have the fine skill with it that her mentor did yet, but she’d come to trust it and now, the trust drew her to one side rapidly, escaping a crossbow bolt that smacked into a tree trunk right next to her head.
She aimed and released the dagger where the arrow had come from and saw a shadowy figure stumble as another bolt was released and buried itself into the ground. She brought her sword back around and engaged the next rushing body, aware of a horse thundering by riderless.
Xena would have probably jumped onto it’s back. Cait wasn’t nearly that good a rider and so she remained on the ground, stepping up onto the now still archer’s back to swing her blade at a passing raider, chopping hard at the hand holding his sword.
Hoofbeats again, and she was turning to see a rider heading right at her. Quickly she jumped off the dead raider and dodged behind a tree, coming around the other side to see the rider hauling up frantically to keep from crashing into the trunk she was behind.
Too late, he realized Bennu was coming up behind him and couldn’t turn fast enough to bring his sword around to block the soldier’s. It split his arm open and the smell and sound made the horse spook and plunge off in the other direction, the rider falling over to one side and off to the ground.
A hoarse yell came from the darkness, then the sound of a horn.
Cait saw the retreat, fights breaking up and men in half armor turning and running, horses bolting, and then the sharp whistles that were Xena’s soldiers regrouping.
She saw no more attacks headed her way, and so she wiped down and then sheathed her sword, then went over to the body near the tree to retrieve her dagger.
Again, the sense saved her. She was on a knee, removing the knife from the dead man’s gut when she felt that prickle between the shoulderblades and she dove to one side, rolling over and getting back up to her feet with the dagger forward, her other hand reaching out to grab.
It was a big man, on a horse, leaning to one side, aiming to grab her back. Cait could see his face, and the look in his eyes and she dove for the ground and rolled under the horses hooves as the animal leaped in startlement to avoid her.
Bennu was at her side and lifted her up, moving back towards a rapidly growing circle of Amphipolitans around the firepit.
Jax emerged from the darkness, with several sets of reins clasped in one big hand. He was bleeding from a cut across his cheekbone, but he waved reassuringly at them as he stopped to tie the following horses up. “Left six behind.”
“Get a watch out.” Bennu said, turning in a slow circle and counting. “We all here right?”
“All here.” Jax said. “Lost a few of the others though.”
Nala shoved her way through the branches, wiping blood off her face, exchanging nods with Cait as she joined them. “They missed our horses.” She said. “They’re all right in the glade there.”
“Who were they?” Jax asked. “Just road thieves?”
“Not at all, sir.” Their rescued cook slowly peered out from behind a tree. “Those were the men who had me. Must have come back to find me maybe?”
Bennu sheathed his sword. “A score of them?” He eyed the straggling in Phillipans. “More like they were out for more than that, lass.”
“Led here by that bad lot of a boy.” Cait spoke up. “If I had to guess.”
“That kid?” Carolous came over, pressing a hand over a deep cut on his arm. “He said he was looking to rescue someone from them, didn’t he? Seemed harmless to me.”
Cait reserved her opinion. She went back to where they’d set up their hammocks and took out her sharpening stone, removing her sword and dagger, and starting the process of putting back the finest edge on them.
Xena decided, after all, that they would leave at dawn. She ordered the troops to get as much rest as they could, and tasked the soldiers being left behind to finish the preparations. So the new moon was just marking midnight when she headed back up from the barracks, aiming for the Amazon village where she knew Gabrielle was waiting.
Leaving in darkness made no sense. It was snowing again, and the wind had picked up, and if she started at dawn they would make better time to the valley. Xena trudged up the slope to the town, exchanging waves with the watch as they headed in the opposite direction.
Pain in the ass gods.
She was blinking snowflakes from her eyelashes by the time she was at the entrance to the village, and she let a whistle out so the watch there wouldn’t have to come rushing out to find out who was approaching.
“Thanks Xena!” They called out from the gatehouse. “Want some mulled wine? Just got hot.”
The difference in attitude made her smile, and she swerved from her path and came over to the shelter, where there was a fire in the stone fireplace and a pot swinging over it. “Sure.” She accepted a wooden cup whose surface was warm under her fingertips and took a sip from it. “Better now with this up, huh?”
“The gate? For sure.” The Amazon agreed. “Not like hanging in the trees. In this weather? That was crazy.”
“Tradition.” Xena regarded the woman, one of the youngsters who had just recently become full warriors, a member of that group that had supported Gabrielle in the last little dust up. “But a tradition that started in lowlands that didn’t have snow.”
The woman, Aron, nodded. “Had to change, we knew it. For a while it was like, lets do everything the old way and just put up with it but that was crazy. Those other changes the queen made, loosened everyone up.”
The shelter was built three sided, to block the wind coming down from the pass into the village, and the weather drifting down from where Xena and Gabrielle’s cabin was. It made a cozy spot for the guard, and rather than being the punishment that it used to be, now the rotation for the watch was almost looked forward to.
Another drastic attitude change. Xena watched the second guard sitting near the fire, working on arrowtips on a small, portable anvil and a contented expression. “Nice angle.” She complimented the woman, who looked up with an unfeigned smile. “I like the flange there.”
“Thanks Xena.” The armorer responded. “We decided that the flare? “ She got up and came over, the arrowhead clamped in a pair of tongs. “We, I mean, the other hammerers and I thought we could make that kind of a standard for the tribe, you know?”
Xena regarded the shape. “I like it.” She leaned closer, noting the evenly hammered metal. “You could start exporting those.”
“Let’s make sure we’re not gonna need em first.” Aron smiled. “But yeah, Benny said he liked em too.” She exhaled in satisfaction. “Things are really getting good here. I just wish I’d drawn straws to go with you guys.”
“Yeah, but at least it’ll be cooler here this time with Eph and Pony around.” The other Amazon went back to her anvil and started pounding again. “We’ll go next time.”
Xena sipped on the mulled wine in silence for a few minutes, the other two easy and relaxed in her presence, and pondered that.
Pondered an Amazon tribe that considered her part of them, that accepted Gabrielle’s leadership, that was thriving, who accepted her teachings and the changes that had altered them beyond belief over the last season.
How much of that, she wondered, would be left when they came back? If they came back, after working to fix a problem in no way theirs, and which might in being fixed, alter life here once again for the worse?
Would the restoral of the gods make that difference?
Or were the changes something else, and natural, and just a part of the flow of the future?
“Thanks for the drink.” Xena went over and set the cup down. “Let me go find out what kind of trouble my family’s gotten into.”
The two Amazons chuckled easily. “Have a good night, Xena. See you outbound in the morning.” Aron said, moving over a bit to get a better view of the path leading down to town. “Hope the weather gets better for ya.”
Xena left the shelter and entered the narrow pass into the village. She could see torches still lit in the gathering hall and in the dorms, and she passed silently by them heading up the track to the queen’s quarters.
It would be what it would be, in the end.