The Road To Doriscus
by Dani Sheldon
Disclaimer, warnings, etc.: part 1
Gabrielle felt as if shed been staring at the rough-hewn posts that formed the circular support of their tent for years, even though it was only the morning of her tenth day of convalescence. She could more or less duplicate the circularly arranged rafters in her mind. With eyes closed, she envisioned the one that was gouged a little deep from when the bark had been stripped off and that other one covered with dust where cleaning had been non-existent.
The Bard elbowed the pillows that propped her up, trying to get comfortable, but the sharp movement aggravated her side. The wrenching pain stole her breath until it passed some excruciating moments later. She lay far more sedately after that, but her mind still roiled. The excitement of her typical day since shed been injured was almost over. Shed already cleaned up, Xena had attended to her injuries and after breakfast it was all interminably down hill. I cant take anymore, she decided as her breakfast arrived, delivered by an all too cheerful warrior.
Xena placed the tray that she carried on the camp table, and knelt beside Gabrielle. Are you ready?
The Bard tried to be pleasant, but what came out sounded ill tempered, even to her own ears. For what? she asked with a heavy sigh.
Xena tried to ignore the Bards grouchiness, knowing that it was only a side effect of being injured and cooped up. But now that the weather had cleared, the warrior had planned for Gabrielle to spend the morning outside in the sunshine and fresh air. Xena slid one arm between Gabrielles back and the pillows behind her, at the same time easing her other arm under the Bards knees. Cmon love, grab a hold and tell me if anything I do hurts.
Gabrielle wound her arms around Xenas neck and held tight. What did you say?
Tell me if anything I do hurts, the warrior said as she rose to her feet with a mighty push of her legs.
Gabrielle lay relaxed, suspended in Xenas grasp. Not that, she replied. What did you just call me?
Xena turned to look, her face so close that the Bard could feel her radiating warmth. I called you love, she replied. The warriors sudden blush was hard to miss at this proximity.
The Bard gave her what she hoped was a teasing smile. Are you going soft on me?
Of course not! Xena exclaimed. She hurried them across the tent and ducked outside, easing the Bard down into a chair arranged with another to support her injured leg. Hows that feel?
Could you raise it up a little? Gabrielle asked, pointing at her traumatized extremity.
The warriors expression was guarded as she eased a pillow under her leg and stepped back, looking for Gabrielles approval.
Thats perfect, the Bard assured her. She hadnt meant her going soft comment as anything more than a joke, but it appeared as if her partner might have taken it to heart. Xena she started, but the warrior had already turned away and re-entered their tent.
Xena stood in quiet reflection, thinking about the Bards words. Perhaps Gabrielle was right on the dinar there. Maybe she was getting soft. In her mind, she kept cresting that hill again, seeing Gabrielle lying in a pool of her own blood, and reliving her feelings of futility and failure knowing there was nothing that she could do to change the outcome. If only I had turned back sooner The warrior took several deep, centering breaths, and put on as pleasant a face as she could manage. I dont really want to go there right now, she decided as she exited the tent, carrying the camp table with their breakfast deftly balanced on top, and rejoining Gabrielle.
The Bard remained silent as they ate, glancing at the commotion around the encampment as villagers performed daily chores.
A half a dozen escaped ewes rushed up to mill about their table, forcing the warrior to grasp the top to prevent it from being overturned by one of the more frantic sheep. Gabrielle actually laughed, much to Xenas delight as a distraught young blond girl appeared, whom the warrior imagined might have looked a little like her companion did at that age, and chased the uncooperative animals around in circles before finally managing to herd them away. The furrow in Gabrielles brow that had only appeared after her injuries and the suffering they had caused became almost unnoticeable as Xena watched her mirthful reaction.
Gabrielle noticed Xenas appraisal and the immense relief that shone in her eyes. She realized how hard it was for the warrior to watch her suffer and how seldom that she had smiled these days. She took Xenas reaction as a sign and hoped that the time to talk to her reserved companion had arrived as she spoke. I know that this past week hasnt been all that great and Im sorry about that, she said. You would think that after all the times this has happened, I would be used to this but it seems that Im not coping all that well. I just want you to know that I didnt mean to take it out on you.
"You never get used to it. The most stalwart of warriors can be laid low by injuries, Gabrielle, and find themselves unable to cope. Besides, I keep telling you that Ive pledged to stick by you through thick and thin and no matter how surly you get, the warrior replied, just a slight note of humor detectable in her voice.
Lucky for me that youre so honorable, the Bard stated with a smirk, before her expression turned much more serious. I didnt really mean what I said about you getting soft.
Xena arched her brows, her look transforming from approachable to one like a fortress where the portcullis had closed and the drawbridge had just been raised. She shouldnt have been surprised at Gabrielles uncanny ability to hone in on whatever was bothering her most, but she was. The problem was that the sudden broaching of the subject, made her feel as if shed been hewn off at the knees. It was a sensation that Xena particularly loathed.
The Bard was all too familiar with the warriors current expression, having seen it often in the past just before she withdrew into herself. Dont shut me out Xena... weve come too far now for that, she pleaded. I know well enough when Ive said or done something thats hurt you.
My vow, Xena thought and her expression thawed if only infinitesimally. Those Hades bent promises.
Thats right, Gabrielle said, looking at her with renewed hope. You promised me, no more holding back.
Xena nodded, looking almost weary. Im trying as hard as I can to change that reticent nature of mine.
Then tell me why such an innocent comment upset you? Gabrielle asked lightly.
The warrior studied her as she tried to put her thoughts in order. Here Gabrielle sat, incapacitated by wounds, yet still possessing the tenacity to try and help her when she needed it the most. Xena realized that she was not only her equal, but that Gabrielle had surpassed her in some ways. Maybe because theres truth in that innocent comment
Of course there is! Gabrielle exclaimed. If there werent, I wouldnt be here by your side."
Xena stared at her aghast.
The Bard couldnt help but laugh at her expression. Do you think Id still be with you if the good in your soul hadnt won out over the evil you once embraced, or that Id have found fulfillment in being one of your conquests, never knowing the bliss of also having your heart?
The warrior gave her a sardonic smile. I doubt very much that youd have rested until you had me all figured out, crazy in love and on the road to good.
Ill take it that your answer is no, Gabrielle said, ignoring Xenas jesting response. Its your ability to show a more vulnerable side to me, despite the ferocity that you show to the rest of the world, that I adore. So yes, Xena, you are getting soft, but in only the best of ways. In every other way, youre as unyielding as the marble of the Acropolis. Does that make you feel any better?
Thats not true and you know it. If it was, you wouldnt be here like this. Xena gestured at the Bards injuries.
What are you talking about? What do you have to do with my injuries? You werent even there, Gabrielle exclaimed, genuinely perplexed.
My point exactly. If I had been there, this would not have happened.
You have got to be kidding. Gabrielle examined Xenas downcast face. Youre serious, arent you? Lets look at this rationally. Did you know that it was a trap?
No, but I should have
Should have what? The thieves were fleeing and the situation at the river looked safe. You cant be at two places at one time. You picked what appeared to be the safest course of action.
Thats not the point
Thats exactly the point. I got hurt because I let myself get soft. You said it yourself that I needed to keep drilling but I was too stupid and let my skills slide. Gabrielle reached out to softly cup Xenas chin to make her meet her eyes. This was my fault, not yours.
Gabrielle, youre my responsibility
Gabrielle looked at her in disbelief. Think again, warrior. Last time I looked, I was a grown woman who could take care of herself.
I didnt mean it like that. I love you and I never want anything bad to happen to you, and it did, Xena said.
Xena, Im sitting here, arent I? Why? Because you saved me yet again. When I get into trouble, I know that youll always be there. Just like Ill always be there for you. And next time, Ill be prepared and not let you down, Gabrielle stated, her self-disgust evident.
Now it was Xenas turn to grasp her partners chin. You could never disappoint me. You are the best thing that ever happened in my life.
And you in mine. Do you believe me? the Bard asked, a twinkle gleaming in her eye as she watched the warrior start to twitch a little at the emotional overload.
I suppose, Xena said, rolling her eyes and fidgeting with one of her bracers. Shed had enough of all the mushy, mumbo-jumbo. Can we talk about something else now?
If you want.
Yes! she exclaimed with relief.
Gabrielle picked up her cup and took a sip. Good, I actually have something else that I want to talk about, the Bard said, seeming almost hesitant as Xena gazed at her expectantly. Ive thought it over and Ive decided that Id like to return to Adwens home to finish recuperating. Ive asked him about it and hes perfectly amenable to our doing so.
Gabrielle, youre extremely vulnerable right now and I dont want to take any chances by having you on the open road.
The Bard leaned forward and spoke with all of her considerable persuasive powers. First of all, no one has seen hide nor hair of the Romans and by all appearances, theyre gone. Secondly, Im probably far more vulnerable in this encampment than I would be in the safety of Adwens home. At least there, I could be secure inside his courtyard, and yet have some freedom.
Have you considered the journey, stuck in a wagon, bouncing along for a day or more, with your injuries? Xena asked, her exasperation more than evident.
"I have and it beats the alternative.
What alternatives that?
Going stark raving mad because Im trapped in that tent, Gabrielle stated irritably.
You really want to go back? Xena asked, looking none too pleased, but loathing the idea that Gabrielle was forced to do something that she didnt want.
Without a doubt! the Bard exclaimed. I cant stand to be so cooped up and I know it must be driving you nuts, too.
The warrior might not always agree with her companion, but she at least tried in good faith to understand how Gabrielle must feel. The words that Xena had spoken to Amarice, so long ago or so it seemed, drifted through her mind like an echo, whatever Gabrielle wants, Gabrielle gets. Those words not only made the warrior smile, it made her decision easy. If thats what you really want, then well go back. Ill tell Adwen that were leaving tomorrow morning.
You certainly dont mess around, the bard said, amazed by Xenas sudden capitulation.
The warrior scoffed and scooted her chair back. Id better get this cleared away and go find that old man.
Come here first, Gabrielle said, leaning towards the warrior as much as her injured abdomen would allow.
Xena glanced over her shoulder with feigned confusion and then looked back at Gabrielle, while pointing with her thumb at her own chest. Me? she asked.
Yes, Im talking to you, warrior.
Xena scooted her chair towards Gabrielles and the Bard crooked her finger, gesturing her closer still. Xena moved closer by increments, teasing Gabrielle, who finally snapped in frustration. Get over here now!
The warrior smirked, but complied.
Gabrielle pulled away only after shed thoroughly kissed her companion. Thank you, she said, gazing at her with gratitude.
Youre welcome, Xena replied, tousling her hair with affection as she stood. I dont know if youll be thanking me after a day or longer in that wagon.
The Bard looked very thoughtful as Xena carted away the remains of their breakfast, hoping that the warrior was wrong, and that she wasnt making a grave mistake.
Marcellinus sat in the lazy afternoon sun, rubbing at the stubbly growth of beard on his chin. Amenities had been scarce since hed ordered that they remain concealed to observe Adwens encampment, and baths as well as shaving were no longer feasible options, much to the Centurions irritation. He turned at the sharp sound of hoof beats, which reverberated throughout the stone strewn gully. Drusus, whod been lounging nearby against a boulder, leapt to his feet to look.
Tullius approached, garbed as a herdsman, including a colorful knit wool hat. He navigated his mount through the jagged stones and dismounted as soon as he reached Marcellinus.
What news? the Centurion demanded, standing to his full formidable height.
Theyre leaving at first light tomorrow.
Take that off! Marcellinus snapped. He snatched off the wool cap with a contemptuous yank and tossed it to the ground. Youre a Roman legionnaire, not a plebian.
Tullius rubbed at his shock of bright red hair as he exchanged a brief telling glance with Drusus. They were all growing weary of Marcellinuss tyrannical behavior and had discussed it at length after their rescue. If the Centurion didnt change his erratic conduct soon, they had agreed that something must be done.
Marcellinus glowered at him before continuing with his questions. I never imagined Xena would be so rash with her injured companions life... are you certain about this?
Absolutely, they started preparing as I was leaving, Tullius replied. Theyre going back the way they came and intend to haul the Bard in a wagon.
Well lay in some place ahead of them then, the Centurion muttered, gazing speculatively at the horizon. I want all of you ready to depart in a candlemark.
Gabrielle sat propped up by the copious bedding in the back of the wagon, which steadily moved towards their goal down the rough road. All the terrain that theyd traveled through thus far was bursting into life in the warm weather and the budding trees and brush around them were teaming with small birds, filling the air with song. Gabrielle inhaled deeply as a luscious floral aroma assailed her nose. Are we there yet? she quipped.
Dream on, Bard, Xena replied. The warrior sat astride her mare, keeping pace beside the wagon so that she could see Gabrielle and converse. She had already ridden ahead several times and, although there were signs that a group had recently traveled the path ahead of them, there had been no evidence of any trouble.
Adwen sat in the drivers seat, whistling tunelessly, reins held loose in his hand. He had sent two riders on ahead to a known campsite in order to prepare it for their arrival and two well-armed herdsmen rode a short distance behind the wagon.
A particularly large rut jarred the Bard, causing her to clutch at her side with a wince.
Are you ok, Gabrielle? Xena asked, looking at her with concern.
Of course, she replied, waving her hand as if it were nothing.
Xena knew her better and was glad that she had made the decision to stop early for the night, despite Gabrielles constant assurances that she could continue on.
Hey Adwen, Gabrielle called. Have I ever told you about Xena preventing a war between the Amazons and the Centaurs? This was a sure way to take her own mind away from her injuries and get Xenas mind off of worrying about her.
The whistling behind her stopped. I dont believe that you have, he replied, sounding eager to hear the tale.
Xena shifted restlessly in her saddle, causing her mount to prance sideways. Why dont you tell him about how a certain Bard, became an Amazon queen instead?
Adwen, incredulous, turned to look wide-eyed over his shoulder at Gabrielle. Youre an Amazon Queen? he asked.
The Bard gazed at Xena, expressing with a single glance that she was on to her blatant manipulations. Yes I suppose that I am, she replied.
Well then, tell me all about it, your Highness, Adwen said with a captivated grin, turning his attention back to the road ahead.
Its going to be a long journey, Xena. Dont think that youre off the hook, Gabrielle assured the smirking warrior before launching into her story.
String them up! Marcellinus yelled, glaring at Adwens two advance men, lying bloodied and battered in the middle of the half prepared campsite. Their gear and supplies had been rifled through and lay strewn throughout the clearing. Since neither of them had the strength any longer to meet his obsidian gaze, he slammed his heavy, leather shod foot into the closest ones side for good measure before turning his back on them.
Tullius and Lucian, standing closest to the fallen men hesitated.
The Centurion didnt seem aware of the agonized moaning from behind as he locked gazes with Tullius and stated in a low tone, unaccustomed to repeating an order. I said to string them up.
Tullius jaw muscles twitched. These men arent who were after. Why bother with them?
My thoughts exactly, Lucian said, tossing his dagger point first into the dirt. He retrieved the weapon and repeated the motion, eyes focusing only on the blade. Lucian was the youngest of the four Romans, sparse with his words, and almost always deferring to his redheaded friend.
Do as he says! Drusus exclaimed, snapping the order as if they were in mid-battle.
The two uncooperative legionnaires exchanged a brief, sullen glance but complied, grabbing the battered men and dragging them to their feet.
Tie them right by the road. That should get their attention, Marcellinus said, turning his speculative gaze to Drusus. So youre in charge now, eh?
Of course not, he replied, coming almost to attention. Those two are growing insolent, and as your principal, its my duty to ensure that they obey commands. Within the realm of reason, Drusus added silently to himself. Hed already made up his mind that if this scheme did not work, Marcellinus could chase Xena on to Mortis if he wanted to, but he was returning home to Rome and petitioning for Caesar Augustus mercy.
The Centurion snorted, almost gloating. Insolent is right, Id have had them flogged if we were still in Rome.
As youd have every right to do, Drusus stated, attempting to placate his commander. So how are we going to capture this Xena?
Im glad you asked that, Marcellinus replied with a malevolent smirk.
To get rid of Perseus, Polydectes sent him on a quest to bring back the head of the Gorgon, Medusa, a snake-haired maiden who turned all who saw her into stone, Gabrielle said. She was starting yet another tale at Adwens behest and pausing, the Bard took a swig of water out of her skin, wetting her dry throat before continuing.
Xena urged her mare forward, heaving a sigh of relief that this story had nothing at all to do with her. She scanned the road ahead and a slowly spinning object suspended from the branch of a stout tree in the distance, caught her eye.
Adwen! Xena exclaimed, gesturing for him to stop. Do you see that?
Her former engineer reined in the horses and squinted at where she was pointing. It looks like a person, he muttered, motioning for the two riders behind them to move in closer to the wagon. Adwen felt edgy as he engaged the brake of the cart and then lashed the reins off to the seat frame. He stood and drew his Hoplite sword, the metallic ring of it leaving the sheath, as well as its familiar weight in his hand, bolstering the old man. He kept an eye on Xena, waiting for her decide what to do, while alternately scanning the area around the cart from his position.
Whats going on? Gabrielle asked. Sitting backwards, there was no way that she could readily see what had caused everyone else such alarm, which in itself the Bard found disturbing.
Xena wheeled her horse back to the side of the wagon to reassure her companion. Thats what Im going to find out. Keep your weapons close at hand. You never know when you might need them.
Dont go too far, Gabrielle said, clutching at her staff, even though it would be unwieldy from her current position.
No worries there, Xena replied, turning her unwavering gaze to the two herdsmen who had flanked the wagon as Adwen had directed them. No matter what happens, dont leave her side. Do you understand me?
Neither man had any intention of disobeying the warrior after the look that she gave them, and both nodded their vehement assent. They hefted javelins and looked as primed as Xena could hope for in the circumstances.
A foreboding awareness told the warrior that the Romans were very close indeed and, if they still intended to drag the two of them back to Rome, it was obvious that Gabrielle was by far the easier target. Let them think that they can get near her, she mused to herself, deciding to play along for the time being. The warrior swung her horse around, urging her into a canter towards whatever dastardly scenario Marcellinus had orchestrated up the trail. If he liked to play games, well then, Xena had few of her own that she wanted to teach him.
A fatal snapping of a twig near the wagon where Gabrielle lay placed the riders guarding her on high alert. They scanned the surrounding trees from their skittish mounts, javelins held at the ready. A dagger flew from the trees and struck one of the guards high in the throat. He gave a gurgling cry and tumbled to the ground with a resounding thud, scrabbling at the dagger in the throat for a moment before he was still. Adwen and the other guard froze in shock, looking at their fallen companion.
Tullius waited until their attention was focused on the dead guard before he darted from cover, leaping onto the front of the wagon and slamming into Adwen with his shoulder. Tulliuss momentum added to the force of the blow, knocking the older man from the cart, sending his sword spinning from his grasp, and leaving him gasping on the ground. A javelin skittered across the Romans armored shoulders as he turned his back on Adwen, yanking at the knotted reins while cursing the heavy leather, which would not cooperate with his frantic fingers. He finally drew his dagger, slashing them loose. Tullius leaned out over the horses with the shortened leads and snapped them with urgency, screaming at the wide-eyed animals. The horses chewed at their bits, frothing with fear at his violent behavior but lurched the wagon forward only a few steps, much to his wrath. A straining cart brake prevented them from hurtling down the trail.
Gabrielle looked behind her at the commotion and observed the Roman, with the startling red hair from the encounter at the river bottom, trying to steal the wagon and her along with it. From her current position, there was no way for her to defend herself with her staff. All that she could do was to scoot away from him, inch by agonizing inch, towards the rear of the cart.
As the warrior distanced herself from her companions, she realized that what they had seen from afar, was one of their two advance men, suspended by his wrists from a tree just off the main trail. His head hung low as if weighted, blood streaking his chest and she couldnt see his face or even be certain if he were alive. Xena suppressed her urge to go to the mans aid, knowing that this would only play into the hands of their enemies and instead, palmed her chakram, hurling it at the bindings suspending him.
The moment that the weapon left her hand she spotted the rope, stretching taut across the trail in front of her at chest height, positioned to unseat her. The warrior launched herself with a yell into a backwards somersault off her mare, who cantered on under the cord untouched. Xena landed solidly on her feet and drew her sword with such alacrity that it seemed to materialize in her hand, raising it just in time to deflect a blow aimed at her head by Lucian. The discordant impact of their weapons rang up and down the trail as the arrogant Roman paused to assess her over their crossed blades. Xenas left hand darted up, quick as a striking asp, and grasped his tunic with near inhuman strength, yanking him towards her.
He futilely tried to disengage his sword or grab his dagger to no avail. Her grip was too solid and he was pulled too close to maneuver his arms.
You think that you can take me? she murmured, gazing at him with algid eyes that held no mercy.
He looked somewhat suspicious as the warriors eyes left his, flicking over his left shoulder.
Xena shoved him away from her and moved back a step, her sword held casually at her side. Lucian, sensing victory, raised his sword high in anticipation of bringing it down on her unprotected head. It was his final act in this world as Xenas returning Chakram slammed into the base of his neck, and he slumped to the earth at her feet.
You should have ducked, Xena remarked, a faint smile on her face, sword still held relaxed in her grasp.
The warrior bent over to pull her chakram free from the Roman and when it would not budge, placed her booted foot on his back to hold him steady, yanking the weapon free with a vigorous tug. She wiped the gore onto the cloak of the fallen Roman and then stood, returning the weapon to her belt with the unmistakable tingling that only raised her hackles when she was being watched.
Marcellinus walked from behind a tree, applauding politely. Well done. He was starting to get on my nerves anyway. He slowly drew his sword. Shall we?
Xena advanced on him with an eager, feral expression on her face. Ive been waiting for a long time for this, Roman. The legions in Rome couldnt take me, what makes you think a pissant like yourself can? she asked, goading him as they circled each other.
Xena noticed the fanatical gleam in his eye and knew that one of them would have to die this day. Ill be damned if itll be me! she thought as he launched an attack. She parried his thrusts with almost negligent ease, a smirk still playing on her lips. Is this the best you can do, or are you having an off day?
The Centurion redoubled his efforts and managed to nick the inside of her arm, drawing first blood. He laughed as he swung his sword again, never noticing the hardened eyes that skewered him as the warrior began to take the offensive. She added strength to her blows, causing him to stumble back a step or two, noticing that he had begun to pant in time with his parries. She darted inside and penetrated his defenses, wounding his side before moving out of his reach. The blood spurted out. Awww, she said, shaking her head in mock sympathy. That had to hurt.
With a cry of utter frustration he charged at her, swinging his sword wildly. Just as he reached her, she somersaulted over his head, kicking him in the back as she landed. The warrior laughed, enjoying the blood singing in her veins as she toyed with the Centurion. A strange feeling came over her as she parried another of his thrusts. Xena scanned the area, seeing nothing untoward and then glanced down the trail towards their wagon.
Heras tits! she exclaimed. The cursed red headed Roman who had escaped them at the encampment, stood lashing at the horses from the front of their cart as one of Adwens herdsmen leapt from his horse, stabbing at the Roman with a short sword. The intruder ducked, evading the blows and a full-scale melee ensued.
Marcellinus noticed her distraction and sought to end it right there by swinging his sword with all his might at her head, while grasping the dagger at his belt, intent on stabbing her through the heart. She tossed her sword to her left hand and deflected his blow as her right hand grasped his wrist, dagger point not an inch from her breastbone. Nice try but I dont have time for this. In one motion, she snapped his wrist and punched him hard in the jaw. His scream of agony cut short as he flew into a tree and slumped forward. The warrior started toward him to check if he was dead when she heard a shout from her Bard.
She hesitated a second before she sprinted towards her grazing mare, leapt on, and galloped to the aid of her companions. Not again! she whispered to herself.
It all happened so fast, Drusus kept telling himself as he climbed into the saddle, pausing to rub at his red eyes. He had every intention of going to Marcellinus aid, but who would have guessed that a woman would fell a seasoned warrior of such stature. It all happened so fast.
Drusus yanked the reins free from the tree where he had tied his horse and paused. He felt a guilty twinge niggle his conscience at leaving Tullius behind, but if his fellow Roman was insane enough to try and take either Xena or Gabrielle after watching Lucians life spray out of him like a fountain, and Marcellinus felled, then so be it. The lad was on his own.
Hadnt that been their gravest mistake anyway? They were no longer proud Roman soldiers. Theyd been acting as brigands and behaving no better than common criminals. Several of the men, Tullius most notably, had all too readily assumed that role, and it was perhaps better that he found a quick end here in Greece. Drusus took the reins of his horse as he turned his back, galloping away from the campsite, away from his fallen comrades at arms, and away from Greece forever.
Gabrielle reached the rear of the wagon and bent her leg, gritting her teeth while turning to face towards the front, a thin sheen of sweat appearing on her brow. At least she could see what was happening now. The Roman held one of Adwens men at arms length, jabbing at him with the same dagger that he had pulled on the Bard. The cart swayed and lurched as they fought, and the horses lunged forward in their traces, their nostrils flared with fear as they tried to escape the mayhem behind them.
The herdsmen got his sword arm free from the red headed Romans grasp, and began pressing him backwards with jabs of his own. Gabrielle saw her chance and grasping her staff, extended it under the seat behind the Roman, wedging it against the front footrest. There was little enough room for the two combatants on the precariously narrow wagon front and though holding his ground, the Roman was forced to step back, catching his heel on the stave. His own impetus did the rest of the work. He wobbled, grabbing for anything, but his flailing hands encountered only air as he tumbled backwards off the side of the wagon. His fall was punctuated by the sound of over-strained metal and snapping wood as the brake at last failed and the horses lunged forwards, sending the herdsmen tumbling off the other side of the cart. All that Gabrielle could do was hold on for dear life as the animals charged down the trail, with the wagon hurtling along behind them.
Adwen regained his senses, stumbled to his feet, and got out of the way just in time to avoid being landed on by the Roman as he tumbled like a sack of grain from the wagon. Neither Adwen, nor the remaining herdsmen --who slapped at the dirt on his breeches as he got to his feet-- paid any attention to the muscular red head, lying with his mouth agape, desperate to breath in sufficient air.
Both men started to run after the wagon but stopped after only a few steps, realizing that they had no hope of stopping the cart while on foot. Gabrielles protectors gazed, deflated as the horses bolted away down the trail, wagon wheels spraying dust with the blond tousled head of their charge, bouncing along at the rear of the receding cart.
The Gods have no mercy! Adwen cursed, chewing at his mustache and kicking with frustration at the hard packed road.
Once Tullius had regained his breath, he rolled onto all fours and crept towards the sword by the side of the roadway, which he had spotted out of the corner of his eye. The wiry Roman grasped the hilt of the weapon, and after recovering a little more from his fall, used the Hoplite blade for support as he clambered to his feet. He turned and limped away, back in the direction of Adwens encampment. The Roman glanced over his shoulder every few steps and hadnt gotten very far, when Adwen and the herdsmen noticed his escape attempt. The two men located weapons and charged after him as Tullius turned to face the trail ahead, intent on trying to put as much distance as he could between them.
Ive got him, Adwen growled. He paused, hurling a javelin at the Romans back with all his one-armed might. The weapon skewered the man between his shoulder blades, penetrating the light armor he wore as if it were papyrus. Tullius stumbled forward several paces, then dropped to his knees and fell supine; the sword dropping from his waning grasp.
The herdsmen reached him first and still wary, kicked Adwens blade away from the downed, shuddering man. He grasped Tulliuss hair and pulled his face up, blade poised to slit the Romans throat if need be. Tulliuss mouth moved and his eyes fluttered but his movement faltered and then ceased as the spirit departed his failing body.
Is he dead? Adwen asked, panting as he reached them.
The herdsmen gave him a curt nod, dropping the Romans head, which struck the ground with a pumpkin-like thud.
Good! Adwen exclaimed, retrieving his sword and eyeing its length for damage. We need to see to the Bard now. Seeming satisfied, he sheathed his weapon and set off after the wagon at a brisk jog.
His herdsmen also put up his sword, but paused to yank the bloody javelin free from Tulliuss back before turning and following the old man at a rapid pace.
Xena saw the runaway cart coming, and maneuvered her mare off the trail, just out of the way of the panicked horses that careened towards her. She caught a brief glimpse of her fraught Bard, seated inside and clinging to the sides of the wagon as it passed.
Gabrielle didnt fail to spot her warrior either. Xena!
Hold on, Gabrielle! Xena yelled, already turning to gallop after her. She drove her mare forward, gaining ground until she was keeping pace with the cart.
Gabrielle, heart seizing with anxiety for the warrior, had to close her eyes as Xena tossed one leg over her mount and prepared to leap onto the narrow front of the hurtling wagon. She peeked a frazzled moment later when she felt another lurch and saw that her dark haired companion had not only managed the jump, but stood on the wagon, reaching towards what was left of the hacked off reins lying across the horses sweat slicked backs.
Whoa, easy now, Xena murmured to the animals, edging her way between the horses rumps and out onto the narrow wagon tongue, anxious to reach the reins. She kept one eye on her precarious footing, all too aware of the ground rushing beneath her. The warrior continued her soothing litany as the animals flitted one ear and then the other back towards her, dropping from a full-out gallop to a canter. She lunged forward, draping herself half over one of the animals back, and managed to grasp a hold of its reins, pulling with all her might.
The horse that she had reined in slowed its gait to a trot, causing the wagon to careen to the left at the animals sudden discordant paces. Somehow, it managed to stay upright and on the trail, until the other horse also slowed, mimicking its companion. The spent animals soon dropped to a walk, and moments later, Xena had them at a standstill.
The warrior took a moment to catch her breath, still draped over the horses back, hands still clutching the reins. Her cheek lay against the horses warm, damp hide and her nostrils were overwhelmed by the animals earthy scent, the tang of clean sweat and well-oiled leather, just as immense relief overwhelmed her. She took a deep breath of the familiar smell and gave the heaving animal a few pats on the neck.
Are you all right, Xena? Gabrielles worried voice drifted from behind her.
Xena gave the horse a final pat and pushed herself off of the exhausted animal, making her way back to the wagon bed.
What happened to you? the Bard asked as she approached, staring with concern at the drying blood that ran down the inside of Xenas arm and over her hand.
Just target practice. Nothing too bad, the warrior assured her, glancing at her arm with a dismissive shrug. What about you? Are you all right? Xena knelt beside her, laying her hand on the Bards good leg.
No additional damage that I am aware of, Gabrielle replied, placing her hand over the warriors and giving it a squeeze. What happened up there? I was a little preoccupied. An unintentional chuckle escaped Xena at the understatement in her companions voice. She quickly regained her composure and gazed at the Bard with a haunted expression.
It appears that our Roman friends set a trap, Xena stated in a flat tone.
Youd think that theyd have learned by now, Gabrielle said, watching the emotions flit over Xenas face at the danger that the Bard had been in and her perceived part in it. Dont make me go through this again, warrior. Im safe, youre safe, and this trip was my idea, not yours. End of story! she said in exasperation.
Xenas expression remained stubborn.
Are the Romans going to trouble us again? Gabrielle asked, suspecting the answer.
The warrior hesitated before answering. No, she said, not meeting the Bards gaze.
Then thats what matters, Gabrielle said, leaning forward to brush several errant locks off Xenas damp, down-turned forehead, caressing her cheek before she withdrew her hand. I think that were both burdened with enough guilt for a lifetime. Cant we let it go at that without always shouldering the baggage of the near misses?
The warrior lifted her eyes. The set of her jaw had eased but her gaze was still intractable.
Im glad that you took care of them Xena, the Bard replied, gazing at her with an equally unyielding expression. Even if that means that theyre dead. Gabrielles eyes were the only things that gave away how much compassion she felt for the warrior.
Xena rocked back on her heels at her statement. Is that how you really feel, Gabrielle?
They tried to kill you and they did kill that poor herdsmen! she replied, gesturing at her injured leg. If Id have had the wherewithal, Id have been at your side, defending not only you, but our friends as well.
Xena cocked her head, scrutinizing her with azure eyes and an expression that anyone else would have found unnerving. However, her companion could see right through the stony warriors behavior. Gabrielle detected the immense concern, which lay just beneath her cool, assessing gaze and did not begrudge Xena the right to be a little skeptical given her recent attitude toward violence. The Bard let the truth of her words sink in as Xena examined her open, honest face.
A slight upwards quirk at the corner of the warriors mouth, and an infinitesimal nod of her head, was all that Gabrielle needed to see to know that Xena was convinced that what she spoke was true. Any further discussion on the matter was interrupted, at least for now, as Adwen and his remaining guard reached them, and both of them clamored to know if Gabrielle was all right
Hey, what about me? Xena groused, but only under her breath. She moved out of the way with an accommodating grin, allowing the two men to faun over her wonderful bard.
Continued in Part 11
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