Disclaimer, warnings, etc.: see part 1
Disclaimer, warnings, etc.: see part 1
Salmakis looked on from astride his horse, sweating and twitching while watching the brawl. Marcellinus had been dead on; leave enough people needing help behind, and the Bard would be unable to resist lending a hand. The merchant suspected that this was more Xena’s method of keeping Gabrielle out of any pitched battles, but either way, the end result was the same. That was of course, if the stupid oaf they’d left behind could actually capture her.
“You’d better hurry it up,” Salmakis shouted, scanning the area.
He wasn’t even sure if the muscular red head heard him as his hands were full trying to subdue the resisting bard. Salmakis was thankful that his only task had been to get them to this spot, and he had no intentions of lifting a finger to aid the Roman. If the situation were managed properly, it wouldn’t matter to him who came out on top.
Gabrielle tried to reason with her attacker. “We’re not with those others,” she said. “I’m here to help you.”
“If you want to help me, then stop fighting,” he snarled, panting hard from his exertions. He’d almost wrenched both of her arms up to where he could pin them, and tie her up.
His accent was unmistakable and a wave of dread washed over the Bard. “You’re Roman!” she exclaimed.
“That’s right. I am,” he replied, forcing her arms upward.
The Bard roughly determined where his face was by the sound of his voice and slammed her head back. The impact to her skull, along with his howl, told her that she’d been dead on. Gabrielle jerked with all her might, finally breaking his brutal grasp and scrambling away across the ground, dizzy from the blow to her head. She fumbled to her feet while frantically scanning the ground for her staff, spotting it near the muddy riverbank and managing to snatch it up before her attacker. Simply having the rough stave in her hands seemed to renew her strength as she turned to face him.
Her assailant stumbled towards her, one hand cupped over his nose, blood streaming profusely from between his fingers. His other hand clutched a wicked looking knife and his eyes left the Bard with no doubt that he meant to seriously harm her.
“I really don’t want to hurt you, but I will,” she said, hoping it didn’t come to that. She began backing away as he got closer. He thrust the knife toward her chest but she ducked away without resorting to using her staff. She watched him shake his head to clear his vision, still clutching his nose. The Bard winced at the sight of all the blood pouring down his chest as visions of wielding Xena’s sword and hacking away at the attacking Romans, blood spurting everywhere, flashed through her mind momentarily distracting her. He noticed her inattention and moved closer.
He removed his hand from his swollen, misshapen nose and spat out a wad of blood and phlegm. “You’re the one who’s going to be hurting blondie.” He lunged at her in earnest and she recovered in time to deflect the blow and move away. He began to circle around her, driving her toward the riverbank. She watched him intently, trying to get rid of the visions of the dead and dying Romans scattered around her, her feral grin, and the feeling of sweet vengeance as her blade struck yet another soldier, sending him to his death.
The Bard kept moving, staying just outside of the redhead’s reach, as he stalked her across the shoreline. He kept flicking his blade, looking for an opening but she moved too quickly. Her adrenaline was flowing and the staff felt more comfortable in her hands as she used it to deflect his test parries. However, the images kept dancing through her mind but now they seemed to shift focus to Xena. There she was laying bleeding and broken with the Romans attacking. Gabrielle relived the pain of seeing her dying soulmate when the vision changed to Xena hugging Gabrielle as she lay dying from the poisoned arrow, the warrior whispering that even in death, she would never leave her. The vision shifted again to Xena crying over the Bard’s body and thumping her chest, imploring her to breathe until her very will made it happen. Remembering the expressions on Xena’s face each time the Bard died or came close almost brought her to her knees.
Gabrielle tried to imagine Xena discovering her dead body or, if the Roman successfully captured her, never finding out what had happen to her at all. She realized that she never again wanted to be the cause of such pain to her soulmate and not surprisingly her desire to survive for the warrior’s sake, overshadowed her qualms about using a weapon. She gave her staff a spin, looking far more confident than she felt as she stopped moving away and assumed a ready stance, eyeing the red haired man.
Having decided to overpower her, he charged her again, but Gabrielle was ready this time. She feinted, directing a blow towards his head with the staff causing him to waver, then she reversed the weapon and swung low instead, striking his knee. As she jumped away, she hoped that it was the same one she’d kicked earlier. When his knee suddenly gave out, dropping him to the ground, she thought that she might have gotten lucky. He kept struggling to rise, threatening and cursing her. He made it to his feet and shifted the knife to throw it at her so Gabrielle reluctantly aimed a last blow at his head, snapping it back and rendering him unconscious.
The Bard heaved an enormous sigh of relief as she spun around, scanning for any other threats and saw that Salmakis hadn’t moved from his horse. The merchant sat staring at her with a bewildered expression.
“Thought that I’d go a lot easier didn’t you?” she asked.
“I don’t know what you mean,” he said, shifting on his horse. “I actually came back, fearing for your safety.”
Gabrielle took a menacing step in his direction. “Is that why you sat there, while I was almost killed?” she demanded.
Salmakis had no chance to reply, as they all heard approaching horses. He blanched at the sound. If Adwen or Xena returned now, they’d no doubt flay him alive; discovering that he’d watched while the Bard was attacked. So much for coming out on top.
Gabrielle spun away from the merchant to look, certain that it was Xena returning. Instead, she was devastated to see two more men that she didn’t recognize trotting up, leading a third rider-less horse. All eyes were honed in on her, their expressions furious and determined.
“Artemis protect me,” she whispered, all the while hoping that it would be Xena who turned up soon to do just that.
When they looked back, Marcellinus and his companion noticed their pursuers reverse of direction. He waved his hand, gesturing to his principal Drusus, to stop. They both reined in, turning their mounts as the horses tossed their heads, frothing, and dripping sweat. The two men let them rest a moment while gazing at Xena and Adwen’s retreating forms.
“Shall we pursue them?” Drusus asked.
“No,” Marcellinus stated. “I don’t see how that would do anything but unnecessarily complicate this. The others should have executed the plan by now. With Xena out of the way, taking the Bard should be easy. We’ll make our way to the rendezvous.”
Drusus nodded his acceptance, reaching along his horse’s neck, idly straightening its dark mane. “When do you suppose we’ll head for home then?”
“Thinking about your wife and children again?” the Centurion drawled.
“Among other things,” he replied, uncomfortable now that he’d displayed any emotion to his superior.
“That’s the trouble with exile,” Marcellinus stated. “It makes a man weak.” He spurred his horse away, forcing the exhausted animal into a trot.
Drusus stared at his leader’s back. Or makes him mad, he thought as he unenthusiastically followed the Centurion.
The Bard watched as the two mounted ruffians paused and examined the scene before dismounting. One unslung his bow and nocked an arrow almost as soon as his feet touched the ground. The other man drew his sword and moved towards her.
“Salmakis, you fat boar, what in Morta’s name happened here?” the bowman asked, covering his cohort.
“Obviously the little blond wasn’t quite the pacifist that Marcellinus believed her to be,” he replied. While he was relieved that Adwen and Xena had not yet shown up, he was still ambivalent about whether he wanted the Romans to succeed in their plan to capture the Bard.
The archer spat. “That Greek wench didn’t do all this,” he stated, gesturing toward the fallen bodies.
“She certainly did in your red headed friend,” the merchant goaded, enjoying their confused and now wary expressions. “Xena took care of the other one.” He pointed at the archer Xena had felled with her chakram, who no longer was making any noise.
“Bite your tongue or you’ll lose it,” the burly swordsman snapped, never taking his eyes from the Bard.
Salmakis could tell they’d been prodded enough and remained silent.
Gabrielle scowled at Salmakis as she committed the name Marcellinus to her memory. “I didn’t do in anyone. Your friend attacked me, so I defended myself,” she said. “There must be some sort of peaceful solution that we can all agree to, before anyone else gets…”
“Of course there is,” the swordsman interrupted, grinning. “You give up, and then maybe you get to live.”
“And wish I hadn’t,” the Bard muttered, wondering how she could delay them until help arrived. She felt nearly spent already, only now comprehending, how right Xena had been about her recent lack of drilling.
The swordsmen stepped closer. “You’ll wish that either way.”
“Xena will find me, and I promise you that a peaceful solution won’t be an option then. If anything happens to me, you know that she’ll kill you both,” Gabrielle stated.
He scowled and lunged towards her, sweeping his sword upward in a tricky undercut to her side that she failed to block completely. Gabrielle eluded his two follow up blows, knocking aside a third. Adrenaline stopped her from feeling any pain, but all three men noticed as blood quickly discolored her cloak where the swordsman had penetrated her defenses.
The grinning archer lowered his bow. “C’mon let’s finish this.”
Salmakis found that he was disconcerted by the iniquitous attack on the Bard and dismounted from his horse. “Didn’t Marcellinus say that she was supposed to be kept alive?” he asked.
“Maybe he did, but it’s really whatever the circumstances allow,” the archer answered. He didn’t even glance at the merchant, not wanting to miss a moment of the entertaining spectacle before him.
Another flurry of blows was exchanged, with Gabrielle giving ground even though she exerted every ounce of her strength to defend against the swordsman’s onslaught. She retreated as far as the riverbank, where she was forced by the water to stand her ground. The Bard slipped in the mud, made even more treacherous by her own blood, and fell to her knees, her staff spinning out of her reach. In a distant part of her mind, she at last understood why her views about fighting were so flawed. She had let her hesitancy and uncertainty dominate her actions for so long that she was now physically incapable of enduring genuine combat. It became clear why Xena was so concerned about her. The warrior had known that until her fears were reconciled with the path that she followed with Xena, a day like this was inevitable.
Her opponent spun his sword, sheathing it with an arrogant flourish and swaggered towards her.
It had been utter folly to think that Xena could always be here to save me, Gabrielle decided. What a burden she’d placed on the warrior, making Xena responsible for both of their lives, all so that she wouldn’t have to trouble her conscience, or take responsibility for her own actions. The Bard blinked, at the swordsman’s muddy brown boots, which had stopped directly in front of her. Here it is then, she thought tiredly, the culmination of my foolishness, and all of Xena’s fears. Gabrielle groped under her cloak searching for the now throbbing wound to her side, when her fingers grazed the hilt of her scram. She closed her eyes with unforeseen hope, grasping the hilt and inconspicuously drawing the weapon.
The swordsman reached down, wrenching her up by her hair, at the same time that she thrust upwards, burying the dagger to its hilt in his belly. He gaped at her, in shocked disbelief as his grip on her weakened, and he slid bonelessly to the ground at her feet. The Bard stood, alternately gazing from his still twitching body to his blood on her hands. She hesitated, realizing what she had done. She analyzed her feelings, and was glad that, unlike when she was on Mount Amaro, she felt no joy in killing. She was sad that she’d taken a life but knew that it had been necessary in order to preserve her own.
Salmakis was transfixed, his eyes alight with astonishment and admiration. He was not a man prone to sentimentality, but he couldn’t help but feel gratitude for this woman, who had single handedly eliminated almost a third of his Roman extortionists, in only a few minutes time. He took a hesitant step towards her, not sure anymore if he could watch her bleed to death, before he remembered that one Roman still remained and turned to look at him.
The bowman also gazed at Gabrielle as a slow line of red made its way up his neck, coloring his face dark like a plum. He raised his weapon again, pointing it at the Bard and drew the arrow back with an angry jerk.
“No!” Salmakis bellowed, charging him. He plowed into the distraught archer, knocking him to the ground by his sheer weight, but not before the bowman had fired the arrow.
Gabrielle, certain she’d been punched in the thigh, collapsed backwards as her leg gave out. She could hear the sounds of a struggle, fists against flesh, and leaned up on her elbows, looking towards the noise. Salmakis was struggling with the remaining archer over a short sword, both of them with their hands wrapped around the hilt. The Roman let go with one hand and punched the Merchant, grazing his chin before striking him square on the jaw with the next blow. Salmakis tenaciously held on, though it was obvious that it wouldn’t be much longer and that his strength was failing.
The Bard’s left thigh began to throb in time with her side and she glanced down, noticing the arrow shaft protruding from her upper leg. Her heart beat in erratic dissonance at the sight of the object in her flesh as she tried hard not to panic, reminding herself that she’d been hit by an arrow before in a much more critical location and survived. She felt lightheaded and bunching up her cloak, she used it to staunch the blood flow from the wound to her side. Gabrielle noticed that the sounds of struggle had stopped, and glanced up, just as the Roman archer stepped in front of her with an odious grin. He held his short sword pointed towards the ground, blood coating the length of the blade and dripping from the tip.
Xena drove her horse, knowing that the mare couldn’t take much more of the pace, but unable to offer her any reprieve. She glanced back over her shoulder and saw that Adwen was there, just a fair distance behind her and that the ruffians were nowhere to be seen. She turned forward, looking towards her goal.
The warrior berated herself for leaving Gabrielle behind. Hadn’t she just promised her, that they wouldn’t split up anymore? What was her word worth if she couldn’t keep the simplest promise to the Bard? One would almost believe that she were a Spartan, raised from an early age to deceive and inveigle her way through every situation. She decided that there would be plenty of time for self-recrimination later as she plowed up the slope above the river, hoping that she’d find a smiling Bard when the campsite came into view, and that her worries were for naught.
At long last, her horse plunged over the slope and down towards the river. Xena’s frantic eyes sought Gabrielle, spotting her lying on her back in the mud. The warrior took in the blood staining the Bard’s cloak as well as the ground around her, and the black shaft of the arrow protruding from her thigh. A man standing before Gabrielle clutched the hilt of a sword with both hands, raising it into the air. The sound of the warrior’s arrival caused him to pause and glance away. Xena’s actions were instinctive as she galloped up, leaping off her horse and onto the archer with a primordial yell. She knocked him to the ground while wrenching the sword from his hands, using the pommel of the blade to strike a stunning blow to his head, and then another that knocked him senseless. She raised the hilt for a third deadly blow.
“Xena,” Gabrielle gasped, gritting her teeth in pain. “Don’t do it.”
The wild-eyed warrior paused in mid-blow, panting hard.
Adwen plunged down the slope and into their midst on Cethren, and leapt off his horse to land beside Xena. “Help the Bard,” he stated. “I’ll take care of him.”
Xena quirked her eyebrows as the rage drained away. She stood up, pitching the sword into the river, and knelt beside Gabrielle.
“I thought perhaps you’d forgotten about me,” the Bard teased, looking very pale.
“I’d never forget about you.” Xena replied. “Where are your medical supplies?”
Gabrielle closed her eyes, breathing shallowly. “By the shepherd,” she replied.
Adwen finished binding the unconscious Roman and drug him several feet away. “I’ll get them!” he exclaimed.
Xena moved Gabrielle’s hands and gently lifted her cloak away from the wound as Adwen placed the medical bag beside her. “Get me clean water and something to keep her warm,” the warrior barked.
Adwen was back in an instant, stuffing a water skin into Xena’s outstretched hand. He tucked another cloak and a blanket around the bard, careful not to jar the arrow or interfere with the warrior’s work.
Xena doused the wound and examined it.
The Bard’s eyes flew open and she moaned in agony. The warrior pinched a nerve that blocked the pain. “Relax if you can,” she said. “It’s through the muscle, and will need some stitches, but fortunately your guts weren’t penetrated.” She doused the wound with more water, cleaning away any dirt or debris.
“Lovely,” Gabrielle mumbled. “Can I have some water?”
“Absolutely,” the warrior replied, tipping the skin and trickling water into the Bard’s mouth until she seemed satisfied.
Gabrielle gazed at her. “I’m so glad that you’re finally here,” she said in a quavering voice.
“My timing could’ve been better,” Xena replied. Her own voice breaking a little as she gazed back.
The Bard shook her head imperceptibly. “You’re timing was just what it needed to be,” she replied. “Until the last few minutes, I was handling them fine and then I got tired. I learned a grave lesson here. You were right about everything…”
“You’ve lost a lot of blood,” Xena fretted, threading a needle with gut. “Maybe you should rest a little while and we can talk about it later.”
“All right,” the Bard said as she closed her eyes again.
Adwen couldn’t stand seeing Gabrielle in such agony. “What about that arrow?” he asked.
Xena glanced at it. “I think it’s in the bone. We’ll probably have to trim it off and remove it once we get her back to the encampment,” she replied, not voicing aloud her biggest concern, that they might have poisoned their arrows just as the Persians had, so many years before.
“You’re still with me, aren’t you Gabrielle?” the warrior asked.
“That’s a good thing,” Xena said, starting in on a meticulous line of stitches.
Her former engineer groaned and Xena recalled how squeamish he got whenever he saw an open wound. “I need you to sort through all the fallen people here, Adwen. I’ll wager not everyone is dead and they may know something. If any Romans are alive, bind them and I’ll deal with them later.”
Adwen turned away so he didn’t have to watch. “I’m on it,” he assured her.
“After that if we find any of your herdsmen, we need to send someone for a wagon or build a litter of some kind to get her back,” she said.
“Anything else?” he asked.
“Yes, keep an eye on my back,” Xena growled, turning her full attention to the task at hand.