A Queen’s Tale

Part 7

Gabrielle placed her staff carefully on the rocky path and climbed up over a stack of rocks,  watching her balance carefully.  The path was narrow and they were high up on the slope and she had no intention of taking a header into the trees below.

Cait, Paladia and Solari were behind her.   She felt reasonably satisfied with the escort, and as they climbed, found herself getting interested in what they’d find at the end of the trail.   Maybe it would be really cool, and something she could look forward to telling Xena about.

The idea of achieving something in her partner’s absence was appealing.  “Careful of that rock there, guys. It’s loose.”

“Thanks, your Maj.” Solari called back. “Y’know,  since I’m the guard here, shouldn’t I be going first?”

Gabrielle paused and looked over her shoulder. “Leaders lead.”  She replied simply. “Otherwise what’s the point?”

Solari didn’t buy it. “Does big X let you go in front when there’s dangerous stuff going on?”

The bard’s eyes twinkled. “Depends on how hard I argue with her.”  Gabrielle turned and continued up ward, seeing evidence of their exploratory team’s progress in the scraped ground and scattered stones.

The back side of the mountain, the range past where the village was nestled, and across the ridge where her own home was had been mostly a mystery to them. Xena hadn’t ever investigated it, the townsfolk had no interest in the high reaches and it had presented itself as an uninhabited space ripe for exploration.

It was wilderness, much like the top of their own slope was, and Gabrielle thought that Xena’s idea of ceding it to the Amazons was a good one, if only because the tribe would likely never turn it into an overpopulated town, instead keeping it as hunting lands or retreat areas.

Gabrielle edged past a thick pile of stone and put her hand against a gnarled tree half growing into the wall.   She could see the rough path turning to the right ahead of her, and looking through the trees she could view flickers of motion.

Solari did as well, apparently, since she sent up a long whistle that echoed off the granite. 

The flickers solidified into Amazons, who appeared from around the bend in response to Solari’s call.  They spotted who was leading the party and their faces brightened, one of them letting out a loud call directed further into the valley.

Gabrielle curled her fingers around her staff and climbed up the last slope, glad when the breeze picked up as they cleared the trees and cooled off her skin.  They’d left the village and even her cabin far below, and she could feel the air a bit thinner in her lungs as she crossed the rocky ground towards the rough Amazon encampment ahead.

“Your Majesty.”  A very bright eyed Amazon trotted towards her. “It’s great you’re here!”

The rest of the group gathered around the newcomers, with grins all around. “Hey Sol.”  One of them called over to Gabrielle’s escort. “Finally got off garbage detail, huh?”

Solari scowled at her. “Shut up, Belli. “

“Garbage detail?” Gabrielle eyed her.

“Long story.” The senior warrior muttered.

“Well.” The bard turned her head towards the group. “You all sent word down we should come see what you found. SO here we are.”

“You won’t regret it, your Majesty. “ Belli said immediately.     ‘Wait till you see.”

“Lead on.” Gabrielle gestured towards her.   She followed as the group turned and headed towards the newly uncovered path between the rocks. 

It was obvious how hard they’d been working. Most of them were covered in rock dust, and there were plenty of scrapes and bruises visible  on the lithe Amazon bodies.   They had cleared most of the rock debris away from the opening, but the shifting poles and wheelbarrows were still scattered near it obviously in use.

Gabrielle looked around as she walked. “It’s pretty up here.” She commented. “What a nice view.”  She could see mountaintops in the distance, only a little hazy from the heat.  The Amazons had made camp in the trees just off the path, and there was enough even land for their shelters and the neatly marked off cookfire.

“It’s a lot nicer in the valley.” Belli told her.  “This way.”

Gabrielle eased between the stones into the narrow pass, glad of her shorter stature as Belli thumped herself in the head and cursed.  “Careful there.”

“We’re trying to get ore of these rocks out of here.” Belli apologized. “But we just got through and we wanted to send word down.”  She slid sideways between two sharp edge rocks and ducked under a third. “Kinda need to crouch up here.”

“Maybe you do.” Gabrielle was able to get under the rock in question by merely ducking.  She felt a moment’s unease, but the rocks started to widen out then and a moment later she was emerging on the other side of the pass with the valley beyond spreading before her.

It wasn’t big.  She straightened and stepped to one side so the rest of the Amazons could enter.  It had gently sloping sides and a forest of thick trees, and at least two waterfalls tumbled down the sides of the walls into the woods below.  “Wow, it’s pretty.”

“It certainly is.” Cait came up next to her.  “Gosh, look at those waterfalls.” She half turned. “Pally, you can draw them up, can’t you?”

Paladia edged past her and peered at the scene. “Huh.”

“Right. So.” Belli seemed to be the spokesperson. “We went down to find a good water source, cause there isn’t any out there, right?” She pointed down to where the nearer waterfall crashed down into a pile of rocks below.   “So we went down there – we put a path in.”

“Okay.” Gabrielle agreed.  “So far I can see this place is beautiful, and it’s got a good water source.”  She scanned the horizon. “Looks like there’s good hunting, and I bet there’s herbs and mushrooms here. Good find, guys.”

“Yeah, that’s what we thought too.” Belli said. “Then we found it.”

Gabrielle looked over at her. “It?”

Belli nodded, and motioned her to follow. “You gotta see this to believe it.” She paused, looking back over her shoulder. “You said this was ours, right?”

Strange question. “Xena ceded this area to the tribe, yes.”  Gabrielle agreed, as she started to follow Belli down the carefully laid path.  “It’s ours. Why?”

“You’ll see.”  Belli said.  “Watch your step here, it’s slippery.”

Her curiousity now ratcheted up to high, Gabrielle  kept right on Belli’s heels as they came down the path and arrived at a pretty glade with a very nice view of the falls. She could see a campfire there, amongst the rocks, and was surprised when Belli went right over to it and crouched down. 

What was so great about a campfire? The bard circled the rocks and came over to her, peering over Belli’s shoulder into the heart of the banked fire. “So what’s the b….” She stopped speaking, as her eyes fell on a warmly reflecting solid pool of metal. “What on earth?”

“It’s.. um..  silver.”  Belli said, briefly.  “We made a campfire here, and I guess the rocks are full of it because when we banked the fire the next morning and brushed the cinders aside there it was.”

“And we found this.” One of the other Amazons shyly approached, holding her hand out. In the palm a big silver nugget rested, winkling in the sun.  “There’s some copper too.”

“And lead.”

 “And iron ore.” Belli added.  “I came to the nation late. My family were smiths. I know the stuff.”

Gabrielle felt her jaw drop, a little.  “Wow.” She finally said. “This sure is a find.”

“And it’s ours, right?” Belli looked up at her from where she was kneeling next to the firepit.

The bard leaned on her staff, wrapping both hands around it.  The implications were stunning, not the least for the tribe.  “It’s ours.” She confirmed in a quiet tone.  “Boy we’ve got a lot to learn about it though.”

“Wow.” Paladia had arrived next to them and was peering down at the metal. “Check that out.”  Even the usually taciturn ex renegade seemed honestly impressed. 

“Did you say copper and iron too?”  Cait asked. “Goodness.  We can smith our own weapons! Lovely!”

“No more buying arrowheads.”  One of the others agreed. “But the queen’s right. We gotta find people who can work it.”

Solari circled around next to Gabrielle.  “Artemis’ sword.” She breathed. “That’s it. That’s the swag Melosa and all them were always talking about around the fire.  What we’d have to get to set the tribe up for life.”

For life.  Gabrielle took a breath.  Yes. “This certainly does open up a lot of possibilities for us.”  She said.   “Aside from the obvious.  Solari, doesn’t Renas and her friend Das make jewelery?”

Solari nodded. “Real nice stuff.”

Belli grinned, and the other Amazons followed suit, everyone relaxing a little.  “We were pretty excited.” She admitted. “I mean, it’s a really nice place anyway, but then to find this… “ She looked up at Gabrielle.  “Our lucks’ finally turned.”

Gabrielle released one hand off her staff and put it in her hip, her face shifting into a smile.  “It’s going to be a lot of work.” She said. “But wow. There’s so much we can do with this.”

So much. She looked around at the group, for once absent of the usual Amazon attitude.  Solari had knelt next to Belli and was touching the metal at the bottom of the pit, picking up a bit of stone and studying it’s surface.

The tribe had always been self sufficient.  This represented a chance to be more than that.  Gabrielle grinned a little more broadly.  She certainly would have things to show Xena when she got home.

**

“Stupid idiots.” Xena ducked and turned, taking the impact of the chair on her shoulders as she nailed the man swinging it with her elbow to his face.  She felt the crunch of breaking bone, but didn’t stop to savor it.

She had her sword out, but was trying not to gut anyone with it, since the men attacking her were more desperate than dangerous.  She deflected a club, then her senses warned her and she dove to one side, bowling over one man as something big and heavy slammed into where she’d been.

A loud crack sounded and the scent of ale suddenly rushed through her senses as a wave of liquid went everywhere and she heard Rose scream a curse.

Hands grabbed at her. Xena shook her now drenched hair out of her eyes and caught a glimpse of steel moving fast dangerously close to her body. She let her reflexes react and her sword arm came around with it’s deadly cargo.

Metal sheared against metal and she shoved backwards against the man’s hold, drawing her sword back as she tried to put distance between them.  

He thwarted her by grabbing her arm and swinging his body hard, trying to knock her off balance, slamming his hip against a table and rebounding back into her too fast for Xena to move her blade out of the way in time.

The warrior cursed and got a boot up against his side, kicking him off the sword and hauling it out of his body as blood spurted everywhere to mix with the ale.  The stench reached her nose and she twitched,  her hands flexing on the weapon as the rest of the men came at her in a group and her instincts switched from defense to attack.

She cut a man’s arm off with a vicious downswipe, then drove forward and backhanded the sword and sliced into another one’s neck, coming a whisker from beheading him as he rapidly backpedaled.   A low growl rumbled in Xena’s chest as she stalked the next man, and after a second’s bluster he broke and stumbled back away from her.

“Get out of here!”  Rose yelled suddenly. “You stupid bastards! Take your gods be damned insane money hunger and get out! Get out! Before you wreck me more!”

Xena turned in a circle as the men broke off and got her back to the fireplace, fingertips still twitching on her hilt.

One man was out cold. Another was slumped by the door where her sword had left him. A third was on the ground, hand desperately covering a bleeding stump.    Tables were broken all over the inn, and it stank to Hades of ale, blood, and unwashed skin almost making her retch.  “Morons.”

The two remaining men grabbed the man with the stump and pulled him out the door. “You’ll pay for this.” The only uninjured one said. “Promise you that.”

The door slammed behind them.  Xena waited a moment, then she straightened up and let her body relax from its quivering tension.  She walked over to the man out cold on the floor and rolled him over with a foot, studying the bloody mess of his face.   “What in Hades is wrong with these people?”  She looked sharply up at Rose.

The innkeeper stared at her.  “Same thing’s wrong with me.” She said. “We’re just tired to death of wanting.” She kicked one of the table legs.  “Tired of never having.”

Xena wiped her sword blade on the unconscious man’s shirt, then she stood and sheathed it.  “Tired enough to die for it?” She turned and looked at the woman. “What’s a man’s life worth?  How many dinars is he bringing to his family now?” She pointed at the dead man in the corner.

“Ye don’t understand.”  Rose said, after a pause. She sat down on one of the chairs.

Xena’s considered that.  “You’re right, I don’t.” She said. “Anyone in charge here?  I’d like to let them know what happened before people think I’m on a rampage again.”

Rose snorted. “Last one out was him.” She said. “No reasoning with the lot of them.”  She gazed around at the destruction and just shook her head. Then she looked up at Xena. “Thanks for what ye did for the boy.  Hope he listens to ye.”

Xena walked over to her. “Go with him.”  She said. “if it’s so bad here, get out.”  She urged. “Or at least take cover somewhere until the war’s on. Then it won’t matter.”

“Won’t matter?” Rose looked up sharply at her. “What’s that mean?”

The warrior gazed evenly back. “They’ll have their battle fodder already. Once they waste all of them, they have to fight for real and they’ll be too busy to bother anyone this far out.”

“Battle fodder?”

“All those kids?” Xena said. “The one’s they’re paying all that good coin for?”

Rose stared at her.

“Then they’ll come back and tax the coin back to keep fighting.” The warrior said. “Let me get out of here before that fool comes back and tries something else stupid.”  She righted a table and headed for the door.

Iolaus was already restive outside, his ears pricked and turned back towards the road.  Xena heard the distant thunder of hoofbeats a moment later, and she wasted no time in untying the stallion and getting up into the saddle.  “Teach me to do good deeds, Io.”

The horse snorted, as he threaded along the path around the side of the inn. Xena judged the direction of the oncoming horses and spotted a track on the other side of the town heading in the opposite direction.  She guided Io towards it.  “That could be anyone coming, boy. I’m not sticking around to find out.”

She heard a yell in the distance and hesitated, then she shook her head and tapped Io on the shoulder, as he broke into a canter and they rapidly crossed the town and entered the forest, the path rapidly twisting and moving downward.  

Xena hoped it ended up back on the road.  She licked her lips, tasting ale on them, and grimaced at the sticky dampness of her armor.

But not before finding someplace to wash.

**

The sun was tiling towards the western horizon by the time she found a spot that was remote enough for her to stop at.   Xena left Iolaus in a small glade, then shouldered her bags and climbed down a rocky escarpment to a half hidden spring she’d glimpsed below.

Cursing under her breath, she dropped the last few bodylengths to the ground and spent a minute exploring the spring, satisified when she didn’t find any sign of intrusion.

With a sigh, she sat down on a convenient rock next to the water and set the bags next to her, letting her left wrist rest on her knee as she unlaced her leather bracer. 

It was quiet in the overgrown space, trees and thick brush surrounding the water and muffling it’s travel down further through the rocks past where she was sitting.  There were some soft bird tweets off to her left, but aside from the faint ruffle of wind in the leaves, all she could hear was her own breathing.

She unlatched the catch on her chest armor and lifted it over her head, setting it down next to her before she started on the plates that covered her knees.   One had a big dent in it, and she ran a thumb over it with another muttered curse.

Shed of her armor, she stood and walked over to the spring with the small net bag she kept her soap in clutched in one hand. Without hesitation, she stepped over the rocks that lined the spring and sloshed into it boots and all.

The spring was cold, but that felt good against her sun heated skin and she kept going forward until she was up to her shoulders in it.   Then she set the bag with the soap down on a nearby rock and loosened the straps on her leathers to slip out of them.

That felt even better.    She took a step to one side and leaned her elbow on the rock, picking up the soap and starting to work it into the surface of the leather. “Stupid idiots.”

Her voice sounded loud to her, and she glanced around, cocking her ears to listen for any echo before she returned to her task.  The sound of the birds and the soft ripping noise of Iolaus cropping grass reassured her until she realized what she wasn’t hearing was what was bothering her.

She wasn’t hearing Gabrielle. 

Xena frowned, and worked on her task, scrubbing the leather with the soap and rinsing it.  So far her plan wasn’t going along very smoothly, and she found she missed being able to just talk about what her frustrations were with someone she trusted.

So strange, to have taken so long to come so far.  She wanted to talk to Gabrielle about Evon’s village, and get the bard’s perceptive feedback on the people there. Hear what she had to say about the soldiers, and whether or not she should ride openly on the road and risk announcing her presence to roaming Athenians who might, just might, be on the lookout for her.

A risk she hadn’t really talked to her partner about before she left.  Gabrielle had been focused on the need to warn the Amazons, and to protect Ephiny and there really hadn’t been time for her to fully go through some of the things that had been in the back of her mind.

Sure, they’d talked about the possibility of Athens coming to Amphipolis after her.  Xena rinsed her leathers out and lifted them clear of the water, giving them a shake, then twisting them in her strong hands to drain them.  But not that she might get caught on the road by them, and run into complications.

Well.   Xena waded over and spread the leathers out on another rock in the sun for them to dry, then she leaned against the rock and reached down to unlace her boots and pull them off.   She shook them clear of water and set the out to dry as well, then she moved off into the deeper water to wash her hair off.

She needed to stop getting involved in other people’s issues.   Xena finished rinsing her head and relaxed in the water, gazing up at the sun.  Just go and do what she had promised, and get the Hades back home.  “No risks, Xena.” She murmured. “Try to keep it simple.”

She floated there for a moment more, then she ducked under one last time and surfaced, walking towards the edge of the pool  and emerging from the cool of the water into the sun’s warmth.  She raked her fingers through her hair and squeezed it dry, stepping carefully over the rocks back to where she’d left her armor and bags.

Once there, she pulled a set of tattered furs from the saddlebag and spread it out, then she sat down on it and started cleaning her armor with the linen cloth from her soap bag that was now nice and wet.

There was a fair size town, she remembered, about five candlemarks ride from where she was now. If she left soon, she could make it there just after night fall and that might put her back on track.  Xena rubbed a spot of blood off the metal in her hands and nodded to herself.  “That’ll work.”

She heard a rustle and went still, then she put the rag down and closed her hand on her sword hilt as she listened.

Another rustle. Her nostrils flared, and she shifted her grip, from the sword to her dagger resting next to it.  Her fingers worked the knife out of it’s sheath and she waited, focusing her attention on the brush to her left.

For a minute, everything was still. Then the leaves shivered, and parted, and a brown haired rabbit hopped out into the sun, nibbling the grass, unaware of her presence.

With a flick of her wrist, too fast for the eye to follow, Xena sent the dagger at the rabbit hard and took it right behind the head. It scrabbled in the grass briefly, then went still.  “Sorry about that bunny.”  The warrior set her armor aside and got up. “But there ain’t no fish in that spring and I’m hungry.”

She collected her prey and took it down to the water to skin it, glad at least she’d get something in her belly before heading back out onto the road.  She made quick work of the butchering, tying the unwanted parts into the skin and then pitching it as far as she could back into the foliage. 

Then she took the meat back and pulled her small pan out, setting them aside as she collected some firewood.   It took her only a minute to make a neat fire, then she pulled her bag over and rooted around inside it.

She pulled a packet out, checked the lettering on one side, and then added the meat to the pan, sprinkling the contents of the packet on the parts and rolling them around so they all were acceptably covered. Then she set the pan on the fire and went back to cleaning her armor, keeping an eye on the rabbit as she worked.  

With any luck, she’d finally figure out how not to burn it.

**

Gabrielle rested her chin on her fist, her quill twirling slowly in her fingers as she reread the parchment in front of her on her desk.   Next to the inkwell,  six rocks were resting, and she paused to glance at them again before she continued writing.

Here’s a rare update in the middle of the day.   I wanted to get this down though, because it’s fresh in my mind and I’ve got some quiet here before Dori gets back from her class.

The Amazons.. no.  Wait.  I have to stop doing that.  It’s not ‘the amazons.’  It’s us.   We found a new valley today. A group of the younger women went up the mountain and worked to open the pass with the rockfall.

It’s been there forever. At least as long as I’ve been around these parts, and no one’s ever been interested in before because no one wanted to move all those rocks. I guess they figured, hey, one more valley.  No big deal.

Except it is a big deal, because those women found all kinds of really valuable stuff in there.  Herbs and hunting, sure, but minerals and ores that I know Xena’s going to freak out about when she sees them.  She’s always said we were at the mercy of the weather, and the fates because nothing around here really produced hard coin, but now..

This changes everything.  Dori’s rocks, those couple of gems and the rest of the pretty things really wouldn’t do it, because, Xena told me, the gems are only valuable if there aren’t many of them. So – maybe one could be sold every once in a while but to do more, or to let people root around for them really doesn’t do anything for anyone.

But metal’s different.  Xena knows how to smelt copper and make steel, and not only does it mean making our own weapons and armor, we can make the silver into coins.  It means real wealth.

I wonder what Eph’s going to say when she gets back?   I know Xena’s going to be happy. I think she worries about the Amazons sometimes, with all that stuff that happened way back when.  If the tribe really makes out because she granted them that valley…

Well, it’s awesome.  I checked to make sure the land grant papers were here, and properly recorded, and they were. Not that Xena’d do anything about it, but it’s hard to say how the town’s going to react.

After all, they’re so close.  But they could have explored up here for years and years and they didn’t. 

I feel good about this.  I want the Amazons to… here I go again. I want us to be happy, and prosperous.  I know it’s been a rough couple of years but now, with this…

Wow.

Wow.

I guess I never really thought about that.  I know this sounds corny, but it’s really true that as long as I have my family, as long as I’m with Xena, and Dori, I don’t want for anything.  But it would be nice to see all of my sisters not wanting either.

I’ve called a meeting tonight after dinner to talk about it, and show the rocks we found.  I hope everyone else is as excited as I am.

Gabrielle looked up again, as she heard a familiar patter of feet.  She smiled as the beaded curtain exploded inward, and Dori bounded inside, with Ares right behind her. “Well, hey there honey!”

“Mama!” Dori was in very high spirits.  She was covered in various shades of the stain the Amazons used on their arrows, and she had lurid stripes painted across her cheeks, but seemed oblivious to it all. “Mama, I made petty arrows, and Cat said I was just like Boo!”

Gabrielle got up and circled her desk, dropping to the ground cross legged and opening he arms. “She did? That’s so nice! C’mere and give mama a hug and tell me all about it.”

Dori thumped down into her lap and gave her a kiss on the cheek. “I had fun!”

“And you got all covered in paint too, huh?” Gabrielle tried to wipe the stain off her face. “Oh my gosh, you look so funny.”

“I made the arrows, mama.  All straight like Boo” Dori thumped her booted feet on the ground. “I wanted to put a rock on it, but they don’t let me.”

“No honey, that wont’ make the arrow go right in the air.”  Gabrielle smoothed the thick, dark hair back.   “How about you take me over there, and show me your arrows, okay? Then we can go swimming.”

“Go to fishes!” Dori jumped up.  “Let’s go mama!”

Gabrielle got to her feet and shepherded both child and wolf out the door, back out into the bright sunlight and a busy central square.

There was a definite air of excitement. Gabrielle could sense it, as she crossed the yard and saw groups of Amazons talking to each other.   Two of the elders spotted her and moved to intercept them, meeting her halfway across the grass. 

“Your majesty.” The first one said.  “We heard the news.”

Gabrielle slowed, but didn’t stop. “Walk with me, Ala.”  She offered.  “I promised Dori I’d go see her handiwork.”

The elders fell in at her side.  “Is it true?” Ala asked. She was one of the eldest of the elders.  “What they found?”

“It’s true.” Gabrielle told her.  “It looks like we’ve got some very exciting times ahead of us, and a lot of hard work. But I think it’ll be worth it.” She lifted a hand and returned the wave of a group of Amazons near the children’s area.

“Incredible.” Ala said. “I wish Melosa were here to see it.”

Gabrielle privately reflected that if Melosa were there, likely they wouldn’t be seeing anything because she’d be off somewhere with Xena and long out of the Amazon’s lives.  “Mm.” She made a noncommittal sound.

“She would have been overjoyed.” Ala went on, apparently oblivious. “She was always saying if we could just get us a treasury, we’d be something.”

“Aren’t we something anyway?” Gabrielle asked.

“Ah, you know what I mean, your majesty.” Ala said.  “We do all right.  We’ve always done all right. But this now, this is different.”

Yes, it was.  “Okay, Dor, show me your stuff.” Gabrielle perched on the railing that surrounded the children’s area as Dori bolted ahead and went over to a table they’d obviously all been working on.

Obviously, because it’s wooden surface was now stained with more color than any summer sunset and covered with rows of more or less straight wooden arrows.

Dori scrambled up onto the bench and walked along it, peering down at the arrows until she found the ones she’d made.  She picked them up and ran back along the seat, jumping off at the end and landing with the tiniest of hops.

“She’s such a strong child.” Ala observed. “Really active.”

“She sure is.” The bard agreed.  “She’s growing up so fast. I think she gets taller every time I look at her. At this rate she’s going to end up taller than Xe.”  A smile creased her face at the thought. “Look at those legs.”

Ala leaned on the fence. “She’s growing up to be a beautiful Amazon princess.” She agreed. “What a warrior she’ll be.”

The bard stiffened and turned, taking a breath to protest.  She stopped when she saw the mild benevolence in the woman’s face, and fought down the urge to bite her head off. 

With an effort, she relaxed. “Well.” She said. “That remains to be seen. She could take after me, y’know.”

The elder chuckled, and pushed away from the fence. “As you say, your Majesty.” She lifted a hand. “Till later, then.  Enjoy your little princess.”

“Thanks.”  Gabrielle held out her hands and waited until Dori put the arrows in them.  “Oh my gosh, Dori! These are so pretty!”

 “See mama?” Dori climbed up on the rail so she could see better.  “I gots the fefers from where Boo showed me, with the big duckies near the tree.”

The feathers were deep glossy blacks and greens, and Gabrielle recognized them. “How did you get them? Did you find them on the ground?”

“No.” Dori grinned like a pirate.  “Guff helped. He ran and made them come and I catched one.”  She jumped off the fence. “Go get some more.” She ducked around the edge of the hut, with Ares behind her.

“Be careful, Dor.”

Aalene appeared, from the kindergarden hut. “Oh, hello there, your Majesty.” She came over. “Is Dori showing you her masterpieces?”

 “She is.”  Gabrielle studied the shaft.  It was straight and even, and the feathers were set into place neatly.  “She did a nice job, huh?”

Aalene peered at the arrow. “She surprised me to be honest. She’s so ..uh… “

“When people are being nice to me, they say ‘active’.  Gabrielle remarked.  “But  I know what you mean.”

“Well, yes, she’s always going full on.” Aalene said, as Dori came rambling around the corner, her hands full of colorful feathers.   “But when we were doing the arrows, she sat there and just focused on it, everyone was really impressed.”

Gabrielle held up the arrow.  “Yeah, I know someone else like that.”  She grinned briefly, studying the colorful pattern striped on the shaft.

“Mama, mama look!”

“Whatcha got there, honey.” Gabrielle watched as Dori came over and offered up her double handful. “Oh, how pretty. Where did you get them?”

“From the birdies.”  Dori said. “Just like Boo showed me.”

The bard took the feathers and straightened them out. “Do you want me to write a story for you with one of them? Would you like that?”

“Yes!”

Gabrielle chuckled.

“You do know where she gets those, right?” Aalene had been watching her. “The feathers?”

“Probably from a nesting area.” The bard glanced at her. “Why? No?”

The young Amazon was shaking her head.  “She pulls them off the actual living birds.”  She informed Dori’s mother. “She catches them.”

“Bam!” Dori smacked her hands together. “Just like Boo!”

“She says that a lot.” Aalene reported. “It used to freak everyone out, you know? Her saying that because it sort of like… “ She paused awkwardly.  “It was just weird getting used to.”

“Ah.”  Gabrielle nodded. “Yeah, you know I forget sometimes. Actually, I forget  most of the time that it’s unusual for Dori to have both of us as parents.” She watched Aalene’s visible discomfort from the corner of her eye. “Does that bother you?”

“Only because.. “ Aalene lifted one hand and let it drop. “I just don’t understand.”

Gabrielle looked at the feathers, then at Aalene.  “If it’s any consolation to you, we don’t really understand it either.”  She said.  “She’s just a part of us, and we’re glad.”

Aalene nodded.  “Sure.” She said. “So I guess we’re celebrating tonight, huh?”

“Yep.” Gabrielle accepted the change of subject gracefully.  She tucked the feathers away and offered her hand to Dori. “You ready to go get wet, miss fishie? Let’s go get the colors off your face.”

“Okay.”  Dori fit her hand into her mother’s.  “Bye!” She waggled her fingers at Aalene.

“Bye, Dori.” The young Amazon waved back. “See you later.”

As they walked over to the bathing hut, they heard the first sounds of drums tuning up, a faint, insistent rhythm that echoed softly across the village, and mixed with the woodsmoke from the newly stoked cookfire.

“We have fun, mama?” Dori asked suddenly.  “Wish Boo were here.”

And here she was, right back where she started. “I wish she was too, honey.” Gabrielle said. “But she’ll be back soon, and I bet she has presents for us.”

“Cookies?”

“Maybe that too.”

**

Xena surveyed the town, it’s outline dim in the night but outlined with numerous torches. There was a lot of activity, and her nose told her there were plenty of people and horses ahead of her. 

She shifted in her saddle, and patted Iolaus on the neck, pondering what her next best course was.  If there were lots of people in the town chances are some were from Athens, and she could be in for some trouble.

On the other hand, she couldn’t avoid contact with emissaries from the capital without having to backtrack through the wilds, and taking three times the length of time to get where she was going.

On the third hand, it was late, and she wasn’t in the mood to travel far out of her way to find a safe place to camp for the night, especially since the town was at the edge of the plains without much good cover.

“Let’s go, boy.   You deserve a dry spot to sleep in tonight too.”  She started down the small slope that brought her to the road leading into town, and they trotted through the moonlight approaching the gates.

Sturdy gates, Xena noted, with men guarding them.   She drew closer, and the men in the torchlight put down their mugs and moved to the center of the road to block her path. They were carrying spears, and had steel helmets on. 

“Easy boy.” She pulled Io gently up as she neared the men,  half turning him sideways and lifting her right hand in the air in greeting. “Evening.”

The closer guard took a step forward. “Who comes?”

Ah, the eternal dilemma.  Admit who she was? Or not?  Xena let her hand rest on her thigh, and straightened a little. “Just a traveler.” She said.  “I’m looking for a room for the night for me and the horse.”

The man lifted his torch up out of it’s cradle and held it up to see her better.   “Where do you come from?”

“Amphipolis.”  Xena replied briefly.

The man stepped closer and peered at her, then he nodded. “Open the gate, Rog.”

Xena wasn’t really sure how to take that.  It was unclear whether the man just took her statement at face value, or if he recognized her, or if he just didn’t give a damn.   “Thanks.” She guided Io past the man and through the now open gates, hearing them close behind her with a heavy clank after she passed.

Guarded gates.  Xena wondered about that as she made her way  up the town’s main road, seeing a lot of torches, and people out walking.  Ahead of her, she could see a square, and hear music coming from it, and the smell of cooking meat wafted through the air.

The buildings she was passing looked well built, and there was an air of prosperity she could sense even in the darkness.  It reminded her a little of Amphipolis, which had regained that after the flood even though they’d lost that lower town.

Very different from Evon’s village.  The warrior frowned a little, then she angled Io towards a corral she could see on her right, where three or four animals were tied out and grazing on a hay net. 

There were two young men leaning against the fence, and one turned hearing her approach. He straightened and dusted his hands off,  sizing her up as she pulled Io to a halt and dismounted.  “Good evening,traveler.”

“Evening.” Xena responded. “Got any space for this guy?”  She patted Io’s cheek, and the stallion nibbled the skin on her arm.

“Two dinars.” The stableman said. “If’n you want him inside.  One to stay outside w’hay.”

“He’s worth two.” Xena’s ears caught the rumble of thunder, and was glad she’d decided to head into town.  “Show me where to put him. He’s not friendly with handlers all the time.”

The stockman eyed her shrewdly, then he shrugged and gestured towards the barn. “That way.” He led the way over to the big double doors, the top halves of which were thrown wide open to get the breeze. 

Xena followed him, as he opened the lower part of the door and they entered the large, well made barn together.  The warrior glanced around approvingly, noting the clean floor, and the fresh looking hay.   She led Io into the stall the stockman held open, and turned him around. “Thanks. Nice place.”

The stockman studied her.  “Where you from?”

Xena set her saddlebags down in the corner and  loosened the girth strap on Io’s saddle. “Amphipolis.”  She pulled the saddle off and set it on the divider.  “Busy around here huh?”

The man nodded.  “Lot of folks in from around.  Market’s going down the lane, got some dancers and storytellers there if you’ve a mind for that.”  He said. “Inn’s across the market square.  Maybe they got a bed. Not sure.”

Xena grunted. “Guess I’ll go ask and take my chances.”  She rubbed down Iolaus’ shining coat.  “Worse comes to worse I’ll sleep with him.”

The man chuckled. “If you’ve got coin, they’ve probably got a room.” He pushed off the wall. “Nice horse.” He walked away and slipped out the door, leaving Xena to her task. 

“Well, well, Io.” The warrior mused.  “What do you think something going on here?”

Iolaus bumped her with his nose.

“Yeah yeah. Shut up and feed me.”  Xena pulled down some hay into the roughly knotted net, then she slipped outside with the bucket and went over to the water trough against the back wall.   Three other stalls were occupied, and she glanced into them as she passed.

One was a sorrel gelding, who gazed placidly back at her.  The second had a pony in it, a shaggy beast with a dappled coat who was laying down, his hooves tucked under him.  The third made her pause, as she studied the beautiful white mare inside, with delicate, thin nostrils and an exotic, dished face.

Wow.  “Aren’t you pretty?” Xena asked, extending her hand inside the stall.  The mare sniffed at it suspiciously, then she exhaled as the warrior tickled the soft part of her nose.  “Pretty, pretty girl.” She moved on to the water trough and filled the bucket, returning to put it inside Io’s stall for him.

When she turned, the white mare had her head sticking out of her stall, watching her.   The animal’s exquisite ears were pricked up and pointed in her direction.  “Ah, so you like flattery huh?  Typical girl.”

Io whickered at her, his own ears swiveling in the mare’s direction.  “Don’t you get any ideas.”  Xena advised him. “That pretty girl probably belongs to some patrician who wouldn’t appreciate her fooling around with the likes of you.”

She finished her task and hoisted her saddlebag to her shoulder. “I may end up right back here, boy.  Keep the straw warm for me.” She patted Io on his shoulder and slipped out of the stall, heading for the door.

The two stockman were gone.  She returned to the road and headed towards the noise,  coming up alongside a large open space that was full of people, a big bonfire, musicians, and the scent of cooking.   Xena debated stopping, then she continued on towards the inn at the far side of the square, wanting to get her bags settled before she looked for her amusement.

The inn was large, and appeared clean.  It was bigger than her mothers, in fact, and Xena pushed the door open with a sense of bemused relief at the lack of the squalor she’d seen in the countryside so far.

The main room was packed. There were men and women clustered at every table, and some tables were set up near the fireplace on an elevated platform that were hosting a few parties in the elegant clothing of the capital area. 

Xena kept her focus forward and eased between the chairs. The windows were all wide open, and the sound of the musicians floated in,  and the patrons inside seemed to be enjoying themselves.  

At the front of the common room she found a corridor, and she went down it, hearing voices in what would have been the rear of the building.  She turned a corner and found a tall, gaunt woman standing next to a doorway, facing two men in good linen tunics and expensive looking leather boots.

“I am very sorry, sirs. You have the best rooms in this inn. We are not such a big city.” The woman said, in a polite tone.  “Maybe you could approach our noble mayor, and he could accommodate you?”

“He’s got his place full.” The man on the left said. “The noise is too much! My lady wife cannot sleep.  What would you have me do?”

“Come on, Ranald.  We’ll get no assistance here.   Let’s find the law in this place, and see if we can get some quiet.” His companion cuffed him on the arm. “I saw a town guardsman near that Gods be damned fire. “

They left, muttering to each other out a side door to the inn. Xena waited for them to exit, then she stepped forward and caught he attention of the innkeeper. “Evening.”

The woman looked her up and down.  “Evening.  What can I do for you?”

“Just looking for a room.” Xena said. “For tonight.”

The innkeeper eyed her shrewdly.  “Pretty full tonight, warrior.  Lot of people here with good coin looking for a bed.”

Xena removed a handful of coins from her belt pouch and offered them on her palm. “Mine good enough?”

The innkeeper took one and leaned close to the lamp nailed to the wall. Then she lifted the lamp off it’s hook and brought it closer to Xena, the warm light bringing out the warrior’s distinctively planed features.  “Ah, I thought it might be you.”  She put the lamp back.  “It’s been a long while, but you and your friend stayed here a few nights, seasons back.”

“Yes, we did.”  Xena agreed.  “During the spring festival.”

The woman closed Xena’s hand over her remaining coins, and handed her back the one she’d given her. “Come, Xena.  My eldest son’s alive because of you.  It’s been a long time coming, my paying you back that debt.”

Xena put the coins away, and didn’t argue.  She remembered the incident well,  not really because of the boy who’d sent his ax into his own thigh,  more for the few days break it had afforded them after two solid moons of nothing but fighting brigands that had infested the area.

“Busy we have been.” The innkeeper said. “Many traveling to Athens, and those from Athens bringing the word of the coming war to us.”

“Mm. I’ve seen them.”

“Do you go to Athens yourself, Xena?  We thought the city would be asking for you.” The woman said, as she led the way down a hall, and stopped in front of the last door on the end.  “They seem to be looking for all those with strength of arms.”

Xena waited for her to open the door, then she ducked inside. “Not this time.” She said. “I’m just looking for some friends out on the road.” 

“We didn’t open the kitchen.” The woman said, apparently accepting the answer. “But there’s plenty to be had outside.  Some good harpists out there too.” 

“So I hear.”  Xena said. “Thanks.”

“Your friend isn’t with you? I remember she told tales.” The innkeeper asked. “Adorable little thing.”

It had been here, Xena recalled, that Gabrielle had experienced her first true success with her storytelling, and had been quite a hit with the travelers passing through. “No, Gabrielle’s busy back in Amphipolis right now.” She answered . “But I’m sure she wishes she were here. She enjoyed entertaining everyone.”

The innkeeper smiled and backed away.  “Good evening to you then, Xena. Take care.” She turned and disappeared back into the shadows of the hall, leaving the warrior to get herself settled.

Xena looked around the room.  It was a fair size, and the windows on both walls were flung wide open to let the night air in.  They faced away from the square, and there was even a wooden tub in the corner for bathing, a rare addition.

The warrior suspected the patricians had not quite gotten the best room in the inn.   She went over and picked up the bedside candle, bringing it over to the lamp hanging against the wall and lighting it.   Then she went over to the bathing tub, finding a wooden trough and stopper next to it. She drew the stopper, and water started flowing, barely giving her a chance to grab the washbowl and catch it before it tumbled into the tub.

It smelled of wood and minerals, but a cautious taste proved it drinkable enough and Xena  stoppered the trough and used the water to wash off with.    She scrubbed the road dust off her face, and ran her fingers through her hair to order it, then pondered what she should wear back out into the square.

Or more precisely, what she shouldn’t wear.   She dried her face off with a bit of linen from her bag, then decided to stay as she was and set the bags down on the floor before heading for the door back into the hall.

 She used the side door, avoiding the common room.  Once outside, she strolled around the corner of the inn and past the ring of torches that were lighting the big open space around the fire.

There was a platform set up there, and that’s where the musicians were.  Xena found herself enjoying the tune, and she relaxed a little as she altered her path towards the outdoor tavern. The open front half shelter was full of patrons, and she had to edge her way through them to approach the service area.

She got some looks, but she was used to that.  She got to the back and caught the server’s attention, lifting her hand and indicating the ale barrel.   The man behind the counter picked up a wooden mug and drew it full of ale, putting it down in front of her and giving her an expectant look.

Xena glanced at the wooden board behind the counter, then removed the proper coin and put it on the counter before she reached for the ale.  “Thanks.”

 “Welcome.” He answered, his voice low and gutteral. “You want to put a tab down, it’s three dinars. We give ye back what’s left if any at the end of the night.”

“No thanks.” Xena lifted the mug and eased back away from the bar.  “I”ll take it one at a time.” She turned and edged through the crowd, finding a small space near the edge of the shelter, behind a big party of well dressed travelers.

There was a half shelf there, and she perched on it, taking sips of the cold and more than acceptable ale.   On the platform, the harpist had finished, and given way to a team of jugglers, who were alternating balls with lit torches in a display that immediately caught the warrior’s attention.

She remembered seeing Gabrielle on that same platform, though it had been far smaller back then, and the big town just barely past a village.   Gabrielle had thrown her heart into the stories and even Xena, who had found a place near the back to stay out of sight had emerged into the crowd to listen.

They’d been given a spot in the common room to sleep in, since Xena was treating the innkeeper’s son, but after Gabrielle’s performance the dinars had flown hot and heavy, and they’d ended up a nice big private room with a big soft bed that the bard had insisted on paying for with the money she’d earned.

She remembered how proud Gabrielle had been of that.  She also remembered feeling a little strange, to let herself be taken care of by the bard’s largesse, a little unsure of how that would change the already frenetic relationship they had.

In the end, though, the lure of the soft bed, and the privacy had overcome her ego, and they’d spent three days in unusual comfort together while Gabrielle practiced her newly honed skills and collected coin from the appreciative crowd.

More dinars than Gabrielle had ever had in her life before, and she’d had a wonderful time shopping, coming back with both things they needed, and crazy little gifts for Xena.  A cup,  a thick woolen shift, and a pretty silver pin that had confused and embarrassed both of them just a little.

Just a little.  The warrior smiled, remembering that odd, awkward moment, when their eyes had met, and Gabrielle had blushed and she’d surprised herself by feeling more shy than annoyed at the whole thing.

Xena sighed and wished the bard was up on that platform right now.  She took a sip of her ale, and glanced around the open air tavern, spotting the patricians who had been complaining earlier.  They were seated at a table with four other men, all in the leather and steel of soldiers.

They didn’t appear to be the law the men had been looking for, and it also didn’t appear they’d had much luck in shutting down the entertainment.   As she watched them from the corner of her eye, she saw a bag pass from the men to the soldiers, and then the soldiers drained their mugs and got up, wiping their mouths on the backs of the hands.

They hitched their trousers up and looked around, and then they slipped out of the tavern and started to wander over to the performers.

Xena studied them.  She turned her head and watched the two patricians, who had satisfied looks on their faces, and she reasoned that the money changing hands was probably destined to cause a disruption in everyone’s fun.

She pondered whether or not it was her responsibility to prevent that.  After all, the town probably had their own constable with enough men to keep the place safe, right?

There really was no need for her to get involved with a couple of pissy aristocrats who obviously cared more about their own comforts than the crowd of people having a good time.

Was there?

Xena exhaled and drained her own mug, setting it down on the counter before she hopped off the tavern steps and strode after the soldiers. 

Sure there was.

**

Gabrielle put her back to the cookfire, and leaned against the high table facing the assembled Amazons.  There was some definite excitement in the air, and the dinner they’d just finished had held something of a party atmosphere.

Even the elders were in a good mood.  The bard lifted a hand and slowly the chattering faded off, and everyone focused on her.   “My sisters. We’ve got a lot to talk about tonight.”

The silence was now almost a physical thing, thrumming against her in a familiar beat as the fire snapped loudly to the rear.   “I know the past moons have been one long series of changes for us.” Gabrielle let her hands rest on her thighs.  “We’ve moved our village, and been through some bad weather, that made our lives tough for a while.”

The bard scanned the faces watching her.  If anyone felt her inclusion of herself in the tribe’s recent history wasn’t really accurate, their faces weren’t showing it.   “Now that we’ve had a chance to settle down,  there’s a number of things I’d like to talk about, some changes I’d like to make, and one really big opportunity that has just come to our notice earlier today.”

She pushed off from the table and paced a few steps.  “I know there’s a lot going on right now.  Ephiny’s gone to try and help our sister tribes, and we’ve got a war far on the horizon between Athens and Sparta.  Hopefully.. “ She paced the other way. “Hopefully that won’t touch us once Xena finds our friends and lets them know what’s going on.”

One of the elders stood up. “Your majesty.” Renas said.  “Will Xena stop the other Amazons from joining in the war?”

Gabrielle allowed herself to be sidetracked. “You mean, by force?” She asked, in a quizzical tone. “As in, tie them up and keep them from going to Athens?”

Renas half shrugged. “Not.. well, Hades, she might.” She said, as the rest of the tribe chuckled a little.  “But we know.. least, I think we know those women might go to their deaths if they join up.”

Gabrielle went back to the table and leaned against it, folding her arms over her chest. “I think my partner will do her best to convince them that going to war would be a bad decision.” She said. “But I think when it comes right down to it, it’s their choice.”

Renas nodded, and sat back down. “No offense.” She said. “But we’d rather get the three of them back here than have them get tangled up with those crazy women.”

The bard smiled at her. “Me too.” She freely admitted.  “Anyway.” She gathered her thoughts. “A couple of things first, before  we start talking about the new valley.  I know there’s been some rumors about some changes I intend on making.”

There was a rustle of movement, and silence fell again.

“Nothing too dramatic.”  Gabrielle said, after a minute. “You’ve seen some of it already. I just want to give people the chance to do some things differently if they want to.   So that means, if someone wants to learn to cook, I’ll teach them.”

There were some nodding heads.

“And, if someone wants to build their own space, and live in it – now that we’ve got the room, that’s okay too.”  Gabrielle watched the faces opposite her carefully.  “I know there were some people who really didn’t like that idea.”

Everyone looked over at Renas, who reluctantly stood up. “Your majesty,  there’s reasons for our traditions. “

“I know.”  The bard agreed. “I respect that. “ She got up off the table again. “But I think you also need to respect the fact that I didn’t grow up in the tribe, and I see things with different eyes.” She addressed Renas directly. “And that I’ve had a chance to know people in many different places and in many different ways.  I want to bring that experience here, to the tribe.”

Renas looked thoughtful.

“After all.. “ Gabrielle addressed the crowd. “What else can I bring? I’m a shepherd’s kid, who grew up tagging along after a reformed warlord and learned to tell stories along the way.  What in the world am I doing being a Queen of the Amazons?”

The crowd rustled again, this time with a slight but perceptible unease.

“I was just in a place at a time when something I did touched someone who was in mortal need, and here I am.”  Gabrielle lifted her hands and let them drop. “So.  No one’ forcing anyone to change. If you’ve lived in the dorm your whole life and love it, that’s not going to change.” She glanced over at Solari, who was smiling. “But If you’ve proven yourself a warrior of the tribe, or a senior in the ranks, then if you want to put up a home, and live in it, you can.”

“But your majesty.” Renas held up a hand. “The tradition encourages those of us inclined to find ourselves a partner, in order to do that. What incentive will there be then, if that’s taken away?”

Gabrielle cocked her head to one side and folded her arms. “Are you expecting me to agree with the idea that the only reason you should join with someone is to get a house? Me?” She unfolded one arm and pointed at her own chest.

Renas took a breath to answer, then she closed her mouth, and reached up to scratch her jaw. 

“That’s what I thought.”  The bard smiled.  “So let’s just see how this works out. “ She turned her attention back to the crowd. “So let’s get on with the really exciting news.  Today, up in the new valley our sisters were digging out, a really interesting discovery was made.”

The crowd settled back down, though thee were still some whispers in the corners. Gabrielle suspected it wasn’t the last she’d heard about the protests, but it seemed the opposition was content to wait until another day. 

She picked up two big pieces of ore, and held them up to the light of the fire. “Our tribe has always been rich in experience, in battle skills, and in traditions. “ She said. “Now, with what was found today, we have the chance to be rich in the material sense as well.”

Definite interest.  “Silver was it?”

“That was one of the things.” Gabrielle agreed. “Silver, lead, iron ore…  our sisters found a place rich in resources we can mine.  We have a lot of work to do to get it of course…”

“We don’t really know how to mine stuff.”  Renas said.

“Exactly.” The bard said.  “So we need to learn a lot, and gain the skills necessary to take advantage of the find.  There are some people we can ask for help… Tyldus, for example.”

A low mutter.

“Some of the smiths down in Amphipolis. They know how to work these kinds of things.” Gabrielle went on, hearing the unspoken protests.  “And of course, Xena knows how to work metal.”

Silence.

Gabrielle surveyed the crowd.  It was hard to tell what the mood was, not unusual when it came to her partner.  As Xena had said, there were long memories here. “So one way or the other, we’ll get the knowledge we need to put this to good use for the tribe.”

One of the senior warriors stood up.  Gabrielle recognized her, remembering her as one of her adversaries in the staff competition, all those years ago.  “Yes?”

“Everyone gets a share?” The woman asked.

“Of course.” Gabrielle replied. “Just like everyone shares in the hunt, and everyone shares in the gathering, everyone will share in this new resource. “ She said. “And some of what we get from it will go to the tribe itself, so we can make things better for everyone who lives here.”

“Get a nice timber roof on the dining hut?” Renas suggested.

“A little herd of sheep maybe..”  Aalene mused.

The Amazon who had addressed Gabrielle sat down slowly, her head faintly nodding.  “Maybe we get our own at last.” She said, in a somewhat wondering tone.  “By the gods, it’s been long enough.”

Gabrielle leaned against the table again.  “It has been a long time.” She admitted.  “And I know there were people who doubted moving up here.  We had a tough start.”

“But now it was worth it.” Solari said, standing up. “Cause not only did they find all that stuff, but we’re in a spot we can defend it in.”

True.  Gabrielle nodded. “Hopefully we don’t have to do that for a while.” She demurred. “It’s going to take us some time to get started with all this.”

 “Solari’s right.”  Renas said. “You going to tell the people down the hill about this?”

The bard’s face twitched, and she frowned as the murmurs rose around her. “You mean the people in Amphipolis?” She asked. “As in, my family?”

Silence again.

“They were ready to burn the place down over those rocks of your kid’s.”  Renas said.

True.  Gabrielle lifted a hand, then let it fall. “People do strange and crazy things over money.” She admitted. “I will probably tell my mother in law,  but not everyone else. “

“Cyrene?”  Aalene spoke up. “She tried to stop them, when they were going to attack. She was chasing people with her wood ax.”

“She’s tough.” Solari nodded.  “She’s all right though.  She told that crazy guy off who was wanting to come up here and dig for diamonds or whatever.”

“Well, she is Xena’s mother.”  The bard managed a faint smile.   

More of the Amazons were coming up to the front now, clustering around her.   Gabrielle braced her hands on the table, and quickly reviewed the faces nearest her, relaxing a little when it was obvious the mood had lightened. 

She wasn’t afraid.  She was just very sensitive to how she was being viewed by this cluster of women she casually called sisters, but whom she really didn’t share much in common. She knew there were people around her who had doubts about her.

She knew there were people around her who had doubts about her consort, and the fact that circumstance had put them in charge of a tribe one half of them were often at odds with.

She remembered the reception Xena had gotten, after the bad times.

She remembered the hidden truths that had come from Pony’s and Granella’s consciences when they’d all been stuck together in a place she still had nightmares about.

But right here and now, the attitudes were good, and the faces at the least grudgingly approving.  She’d take it.  “So do we have some ale we can pour to celebrate?” She asked. “Because I think we’re entitled to it.”

Solari and another Amazon led the way to the newly tapped cask, and before long pitchers of ale were being passed back from row to row, as Amazons untied their mugs from their belts and held them out to be filled.

Outside near the fire, drums started up, drawing them out from under the shelter into the clear night, where stars twinkled softly overhead.  Gabrielle got her mug filled and wandered out with the rest, climbing up onto the multilayer platforms and settling herself on a couple of pillows.

Gabrielle stretched her legs out and explored the novel experience of being alone up on the wooden planks, without Xena’s familiar length lounging behind her.  It felt strange, and she kept fighting the urge to look around, expecting to see her partner somewhere nearby.

Usually she was.  Not always right next to her, but somewhere within eyesight if Gabrielle looked around carefully enough when they were both in the village.  She’d asked her just the other sevenday why that was, surprised when Xena told her she just wasn’t going to let her loose in a crowd of randy women who wanted to bed her.

Now that was a spit your drink out your nose moment.   Gabrielle had laughed until her stomach hurt so much she had to stop, leaving her partner with a bemused expression on her face.

Anyway.  Gabrielle took a sip of her ale and sighed.

She expected to miss Xena at night, when she was alone in the hut or in the morning, when Dori woke her, but it was moments like this when her body unexpectedly craved her partner’s presence that she felt her absence the most strongly.

She wanted Xena’s touch. Not the intimate one of their bedroom, but the simple, casual warmth of her arm draped over the bard’s shoulder; the knowing bump of her knee against Gabrielle’s thigh, the gentle ruffle of her hair from Xena’s long fingers.

Even in the heat of the summer, she felt cold without her partner’s presence.

With aanother sigh, she pulled her boots up under her and took a sip of her ale, focusing her thoughts on the drumming, and the various groups of Amazons around her, lifting their mugs in her direction, for once in a collective good mood.

Cait came into her field of vision and she waved the young Amazon forward, glad for someone to talk to she felt no ambivalence about. “Hey Cait.”

“Hello.” Cait joined her on the platform and settle down cross legged next to her.  “That was exciting news today, wasn’t it?”

“It sure was.”  Gabrielle agreed.  “I’m glad you guys were there to see it.  I wasn’t expecting anything like that – I thought maybe there was just really good hunting there, or they found a hot spring or something.”

“Too right, me too.” Cait agreed. She rested her elbows on her knees.  “Or something a bit silly, like a secret cave to make into that purging thing they were talking about.”

Gabrielle blinked, and glanced around, belatedly realizing the one thing that they hadn’t built in the new village was a purging hut.   “Oh. Huh.”

“Did you think that too?”

The bard shook her head faintly. “No. I.. actually I didn’t even think about it. I just figured out they didn’t put one here yet.” She paused thoughtfully. “ Wasn’t my favorite place. Don’t think I missed it.”

“Oh.” Cait murmured. “Yes, I’m sorry. That’s true isn’t it.”

“Yeah.”  Gabrielle sipped from her cup. “I understand the theory behind it, and I guess…  I guess I was willing to try anything at that point in my life.”

Had she been? Or had it just been easier to just do what Ephiny was urging her to do because she just really didn’t care?  Gabrielle carefully let herself think back to that time, and could just vaguely remember the sweat, and the sting of the branches.

She hadn’t cared. None of it had mattered, no pain could touch the black ball of grief eating her from the inside out.

“I didn’t mean to bring that up.” Cait said, awkwardly.  “I only thought of it because I heard some of them talking before, you know, about that being one of the traditions they thought were being left behind.”

“It’s okay, Cait.” Gabrielle patted her on the knee.  “I didn’t want to stop that.  If it helps people, and it makes them feel better then we by all means should do it.  Maybe we can find a cave for that. I think you need someplace set apart.”

Cait glanced around. “I thought the idea was a bit on the silly side myself.” She confided. “When you’re feeling awful, why would being made to feel even more awful make it better?”

“Well.” Gabrielle watched as a group of the Amazons got up, and the beat of the drums changed, to a more seductive rhythm.  “I think it’s a different kind of pain.”  She said.  “I guess the theory is you trade one pain for the other, and it helps.”

Cait looked extremely skeptical.

“It didn’t work for me.” Gabrielle smiled briefly.  “But there were elders who swore by it.” 

“Sorry.”

The bard smiled more broadly. “Don’t be, Cait.” She watched the dancing start up.  “When I look back at that time, it’s just as a contrast to now.” She glanced over at Cait. “We survived.”

Cait smiled back.  Then she looked over at the dancers, now filling the open space in front of the fire as the drums got louder.  “They do keep asking if I want to do that. “ She indicated the bodies outlined in the firelight.

Seductive, certainly.  The Amazons were in a collective good mood and it showed.  “Do you want to?” Gabrielle asked.  “I think a lot of people enjoy it.”

Cait studied the dancers, then she turned her head and regarded the queen.  “Do you?”

Ah.  Gabrielle wrapped her hands around her mug and pondered the question.  “I do, but not with just everyone in a big group.” She said, slowly.  “It gets too busy.”

“I don’t rather like it.” Cait said, frankly.  “I don’t’ like so many people all round, you know? And they start grabbing at you.”

“Mm.” Gabrielle looked up as a shadow fell over her, to find an Amazon with a tray full  of mugs standing nearby. “Oh. Thanks.” She exchanged her empty mug for a full one.  “Cait?”

“Yes, please.” Cait accepted a mug and sipped it.  “That’s quite nice.”

“So where’s Paladia?”  Gabrielle asked.

“Feeling a bit under the weather.” Cait said. “Cycles, you know.”

“Uh huh. I know.” The bard commiserated.  “Don’t you want to go keep her company? I’m sure some mulled wine would probably help. It does for Xena.”

“Well.” Cait cleared her throat a little. “I would, but you see, I did promise Xena I’d make sure you’d have someone to chat to.” She told the queen.  “Especially up here on this flat bit all by yourself.”

Gabrielle put her cup down. “Xena made you promise that?”

“Not exactly.” The young Amazon said. “I wanted to go with her, you see.  And she said that would be lovely, but she didn’t want to take anyone away who was quite on your side.”

“Ah.”

“And that you would need all the friends you had here, while she was gone. “ Cait concluded. “So I thought it was important to her that you not be left up here all by yourself with nothing to talk to but that tree.”

Aw.  Gabrielle had to smile, as the revelation suddenly made it seem like Xena was, in fact, around her, the warmth of the concern for her wellbeing giving her a pleasant jolt of surprise.  “Thanks Cait.” She clasped the younger woman’s shoulder.  “But you want to know a secret?”

“If you want me to.” Cait replied.

“I’d rather if you’d gone with her, since I couldn’t.”  Gabrielle said. “Does that make us both crazy?”

“I don’t think so, no.”  Cait grinned.  “But next time, I definitely shall ask you first.”

They both laughed, as the drums increased their pace, and the Nation threw their energy into the dance.  The sound echoed off into the distance, bouncing off the mountain’s walls and out into the starry sky overhead.

Gabrielle lifted her mug, and toasted the stars in the shape of the Warrior, imagining she saw the eye peeking out of it’s field of inky black.  “Be safe, my love.” She whispered.  “Hope you’re tucked in bed, halfway home already.”

Wishful thinking, and she knew it.

**

Continued in Part 8