Xena bit her lip, and struggled to feel comfortable in the new armour. Not that it fit poorly, or was heavy, or stiff, or anything else overtly unpleasant for her. Even the colour scheme was the same. But it was more encasing armour, a true barrier to blows. Cowardice had never been her way. Half the reason for her inadequate back protection had been the point it made to her armies. Only those who intended to run away needed armour on their backs. Not true, of course. Anyone who didn't want permanent paralysis or quick death from just the right type of blow took care to shield the spine. The bravado, the adrenalin, the desperate need to face front or die by the hand of the enemy or by execution for deserting the field of battle had been effective. Terribly effective, Xena admitted to herself. She sighed. Lifting her eyes, she looked ahead to fix her gaze on the bard, who was prancing about in her new finery, experiencing similar feelings of discomfort with it.
"Onward." Xena declared with determination. "Backwards is no good for anything. Have to keep going." A quick squeeze of her knees, and Argo bounded forward.
"So," Gabrielle said, relentlessly cheerful as the long, brisk hikes always made her nowadays. "We cache your old armour and stuff just outside Megaera, then we head into the city to join the garrison."
"Yup." Megaera was being threatened by a huge number of haphazardly organized men, some Ares' followers, some not. They weren't terribly effective in a military sense, so much as they were desperate. Unfortunately, desperate men could be among the most dangerous and violent kind, a fact Xena had once regularly exploited, who did their damage by using overwhelming numbers and bully tactics. They had already decimated a smaller nearby village on the way to the city to prove the point. The duo had come upon the wreckage. Even Xena had been hard pressed to hang onto her stomach contents when she saw what had been done to the place. Standing knee deep in wreckage, she had wondered with helpless misery if leaving Ares free might have saved the village. Then logic had begun to reassert itself. During her three moons recovery in Themiskyra... an extended period insisted on fiercely by her partner, Greece had fallen into the grip of a fierce drought. Anyone who wasn't attached in some productive way to a stable community tended to fall into the category of violent roadway hood or occasional starving beggar. Ares was not a true motivation by his presence or absence. More was the pity, Xena thought to herself in disgust.
"You all right?" Gabrielle asked gently.
"Yeah. Just haven't seen a mess quite like that last village in a long time. I never... even I never..." the warrior shook her head. "Quick, clean, in, out." The bard stroked the skin gently on the mounted woman's thigh. Sometimes, sometimes words weren't much help. Then she had to resort to Xena's preferred medium, those tellingly symbolic physical actions.
"Boss, boss?" the man shuffled nervously. Kyanaegis gave him the creeps these days, but she was a pretty good leader, even now when she had to work so hard to keep a lid on things. Five long moons since Ares had bought it, and they were the only ones still doing all right. Except they weren't doing much fighting, and weren't making any money. Between the heat and the fact they had been on short rations for what seemed like forever thanks to the drought, even Kyanaegis' army was on the brink of a violent rebellion. "What exactly are we doing? Where are we going? Not to say the rest of us aren't up for it... we'd just like to have some clue what it is?" He desperately needed something to placate the dissenters with. The boss had been shut up in her tent for most of the past three days.
The dark woman turned in her seat, pointing to the map spread across the trestle table in front of her. "Despite our south trending path,we're not heading towards Athens, as that idiot Eratosthenes would like. Suicide is stupid. You know quite well the Athenians have large prices on the heads of every person in this army, all higher for the dead."
"Yes, ma'am." He felt quite ambivalent about those prices. Lieutenants and Kyanaegis herself were of course, the highest marks. Men like him... his apparent high position was an illusion created by his gopher status... fetched about as much as an Athenian slave, the kind with tattoos. Having dabbled in the slave trade, he had learned the Athenians especially preferred 'unblemished' slaves. Nice in a way, after all, he wasn't a source of significant profit by himself, and so not of much interest to bounty hunters. But his pride was stung a bit. A gopher was rather better than a common mercenary, surely?
"Are you listening?" Kyanaegis' lips twitched, while her latest messenger and general dogsbody snapped to attention. "During my time away from the army, I gathered all the information I could about the results of Ares' imprisonment. Over seven moons, and only one temple hasn't fallen to pieces. The temple of Ares in Amphipolis, of all places. Even the Halls of War have collapsed like a house of cards. It seems the sword representative of Ares power has wound up there, although how... how remains to be explained. This is the only plausible way to provide the energy that holds the place together."
The man's eyes widened as he began to understand where this was leading.
"We are going to Amphipolis, a town that has learned so little from the visits of raiding warlords in the past, they still have no army. Athens has become bored since peace was made with Sparta. They have taken up an interest in the colony of Amphipolis, and to that end have sent a token garrison to instill Athenian law and see if there are still Thrakian tribes with saddlebags of gold to trade. The place is wisely situated near the Strymon, forest all around. Of course, there is a broad, clear road leading up to it, which the garrison will march along, heedless of risk."
"No way!"the man blurted in amazement. He wasn't brilliant, and was just humble enough to recognize and acknowledge the fact. He was smart enough to know, however, that if you marched down the middle of a clear road, in broad daylight, with forest on either side of you, not only did you announce your presence with all your noise and dust... you effectively screamed, 'Ambush me! Ambush me! I love being ambushed!' Periodically an Athenian general with ambition gathered up the hoplites under his command and marched them towards Themiskyra, down a broad, clear road, that threaded the needle of the Amazon defensive ring before it approached the walled city. Despite the clear purpose of the posts around the ring, observation and rapid warning, they would claim the Amazons were only weak women. The raids had finally been banned because they were a major source of embarrassment and a notorious money sink. Even when the Amazons hadn't known about the Greeks, and considered them potentially friendly, the short lived advantage had been of no use. At best it had led to the death of one queen, the temporary capture of another, and the humiliating defeat of the city by a tightly knit, fast moving Amazon army. They had not been interested in staying... for some reason they were not empire builders. And through all that, no one had quite figured out there was a significant problem with marching down a broad, clear road in broad daylight.
"It seems that Xena, the Warrior Princess, took an arrow outside Megaera." Kyanaegis leaned back. "She has been unseen and unheard from for nearly four moons. Her armour was found, hidden in a cave outside Thessaly, of all places. It seems Hades has finally seen fit to rid us of the loathsome woman." She took a long draught from a cup of wine. "Yet still, no one knows who the new ruler of war is. I wonder, where is the new war god... or Goddess as the case may be... hmmm?"
The man shook his head, still a bit at sea because his attention kept wandering.
"No one knows who the new ruler of war is yet. I think they don't know, because there isn't one. The prize is there, ready to be plucked. Someone has to make a play for it. We shall begin the play by ambushing the token Athenian garrison on its way to Amphipolis. Then we will go on to the town, show them they have no way to resist us, and I... I shall avail myself of the sword of Ares."
"You..." the man blinked. Damn. Kyanaegis was fruitier than a fruitcake, maybe... except, she was a great strategist. And if you could get your butt in with the newest warmonger in chief, hey life could be sweet. How much would you have to fight and risk anymore, if you played your cards right, and helped them into their spot? "Hey." he grinned. This was just the sort of thing, with the potential of plenty of booty and easy times serving a deity again that would take the minds of Eratosthenes and the rest of the near mutineers right off plans to go traitor. After all, Athenian garrisons always meant there was some sort of lucrative trade happening. The goods and any dinars would patch up the threadbare higher ups... and the rest of the place, the man grinned, would provide for the rest. He licked his lips. Word out was that the slave market would be quite lucrative next season, what with the usual slaves dying of heat and starvation. Even the tattooed Thrakians would fetch a fine price.
"I thought the idea would appeal to you." purred Kyanaegis. She had chosen this gopher precisely due to his greed and unhealthy interest in the slave trade. His enthusiasm would help win over the majority of the naysayers nicely. "I should have been Ares' Chosen, then the thing would have fallen simply and automatically to me. Xena is out of the picture. Contrary to expectations, she is not Ares' successor, or else she would not have died at Megarea. We shall surround Amphipolis, and if they should be so stupid as to offer resistance,we will start a blood bath to tint the fields..." she paused. A more snooty word had to exist for red, than, red...
"Incarnadine." the man declared. "I learnt it from a scroll." he added. He could read, and was proud of it, reasonably so in a mainly illiterate army.
"Excellent." Kyanaegis smiled. "Incarnadine it is." A deep breath. "I have missed true action. Ares left such grand things behind long ago. Often I've wondered why. Surely he enjoyed them." The man shook his head slowly. "Spread the word among the lieutenants. We march first thing in the morning." He left eagerly, almost skipping with delight.
Turning back to her map, Kyanaegis scowled. Now it was just a matter of holding together the army, giving her a chance to replace the god she had once been forced to serve, albeit temporarily. Between the poor conditions and the damage Ares' aimless leadership had caused, her grip on her own army had been reduced to her very fingernails, until they felt as if they would come out. She had no real wish to destroy Amphipolis. Such behaviour was liable to wake sleepy Athens, and their war policy seemed to be, 'after reinstating grip on colony, attack Sparta.' Such fighting tended to push out and destroy independent armies like hers, as the city-states press ganged or bribed in whoever they found useful and hunted down or exiled the rest in preparation for the next installment in the never ending drama of Athens against Sparta. There was no room for warriors without a clear allegiance when the city-states fell into opposing lines as dictated by the insidious machinery of their trade alliances, war treaties, and mutual enmities.
She had no real interest in divinity, either. But the powers of a deity would serve her nicely for the short time she had them. They provided one sort of surety she wanted very much.
If she could settle the issue of Amphipolis quickly enough, the men would settle in. They would enjoy themselves, indulging in quick raids and sallies on the outlying villages, supplying themselves from the fallen town. Kyanaegis took another long draught of her wine. The men would have worked off much of their impatience, bloodlust, and frustration. They would be pleased to tuse Amphipolis as a base for further action, action directed carefully north away from Athenian trade interests. And with that, Kyanaegis' position would resolidify, and the city-states would begin to turn the other way, caring little for warlords so pleasantly far from home who didn't interfere with making money or force a response to a bloodbath.
Kyanaegis frowned. She was tired of the tedious round of fighting, fighting some more, and fighting again. Like Xena so long ago, she wanted out. But for her, there was no real way out, no other life she could turn to in Greece, or Thrake or Amazonia. This was not too much of a problem. With the army fully preoccupied, and herself wielding outrageous powers, disentangling herself would be simple. The only obstacle left after that... getting rid of the sword of Ares without gaining a crowd of those who wanted it. Immortality... if you didn't have it already... and divine powers came with it. And left with it too. How had the sword been made, Kyanaegis wondered.
Right now, during the slow but noticable ending of one of the worst droughts in living memory, Athens was fat, and prosperous. The last war with Sparta had made life so miserable there, no one was in the mood for a war. Heavy taxes on the surrounding towns and villages kept the Athenian oligarchy well fed even when everyone else was tightening their belts another notch. Only a few more winters fraught with boredom and complaining subjects had any chance of breaking the grip of complacency there. If Athens remained somnolent, Sparta would follow, and so the rest of Greece. Kyanaegis was sure accidentally jolting the city into action wouldn't be a problem.
She threw a pair of rough dice across the table. They came up snake eyes.
"I can't believe all you got was a scratch." griped Gabrielle, wincing when her partner applied more cleanser to the nasty gash across one of her shoulderblades, caused by the impact of a spiked mace. If it hadn't been for her newly acquired armour, the bard was all too aware she wouldn't be laying here complaining now.
"You can't believe it!" snorted Xena. Of course she had her share of cuts, bruises, sore muscles, and a nasty bump on one shin. But the one crossbow bolt she hadn't been able to catch had bounced away with a scraping, rattling sound and fallen to the ground. To her opponents she had seemed unnervingly invulnerable... luckily none of them had seen her after imprisoning Ares... and the wasted crossbow bolt had finally broken the cohesion of the attacking army. Unfortunately, Gabrielle hadn't been quite as lucky, and now had a rather alarming number of stitches in one powerful thigh to show for it. "I'm not near so concerned about that as I'm relieved your leg is going to be almost like new after the stitches come out and you get walking again."
"Good point." agreed the bard, looking with relief at the limb in question. There was almost no swelling left, no discolouration. Gangrene was a serious risk, especially in the case of taking a spear through the thigh.
The fire was crackling a little, and she glanced up. "Xena, you have to move the rabbit a bit, or it'll be charred."
"Okay, okay." the warrior complied, and watched the bard's still pale face through the flames. "So, what do you feel up for?" Quills and parchment had remained mainly untouched the past few days, despite the impromptu break.
"Nothing much." sighed Gabrielle, carefully putting her hands behind her head.
"Fine." Gods, Xena sighed to herself. Dealing with a bard who didn't want to talk, or write... nowhere in the warrior handbook did it say anything about that.
"Okay." she walked around the fire, and sat down crosslegged on her side of the bedroll. Pulling over her sword she added, "Just noticed you seemed a bit out of sorts apart from being hurt. Thought you might want to talk. Or maybe have your writing stuff." Prodding very carefully.
"I don't." Gabrielle grated. The warrior's shoulders stiffened a moment, then shifted into the smooth motions as she polished her sword.
"It doesn't." the bard's jaw worked for a few moments. "I think I see what you mean, about how sometimes you ought to get busy when you find yourself thinking too much."
"Lately, I've been thinking about... being a bard. It's just gotten hard... to write." Gabrielle pulled at a bit of the thick fur of the pelt they were laying on. "I've been wondering if maybe. Maybe, I can't have both. Maybe I can't be a bard, and a warrior."
Xena blew out a long breath. Well, they hadn't talked over what happened before Ares was imprisoned properly. Sure as flies were pests, that wasn't helping any. "Sometimes it is hard to do what you love, Gabrielle. You get tired, or upset... or too worried about being perfect. Then you start doubting you can do it at all." A pair of surprised green eyes focussed on her. "Oh yeah," Xena grinned self-deprecatingly. "I wouldn't spend so much time learning flips and moves and the rest if I didn't love doing it. Every once in awhile, I have to kick myself in the leathers and make myself get going. Usually after some jerk has managed to thump me over the head with something. Seems to be a thing that bothers me when my brains get rattled." Her partner chuckled.
"Rattled brains, huh?" she tucked herself into Xena's side, and they shared the rabbit. This didn't take long. Neither of them was terribly hungry, so they soon found themselves picking out patterns in the sky.
"So you think maybe, I just need to... kick myself in the parchment and get going?" the gentle smile in the words earned her a squeeze.
"Yeah. But do something easy. For me that'd be, running, or fishing, whatever." Unseen, because the bard was looking up, after all, Xena suddenly grinned from ear to ear. "Maybe try making up something silly. Not even I have to see it."
"Silly?" Gabrielle gave her partner a poke. "Did I actually hear you say that word?"
"Yes... and I'm serious. Gabrielle, you write a lot of serious stuff. Maybe you just need a bit of a break from the usual."
On one hand, Gabrielle found herself almost wanting to shove the idea away and sulk some more. Except... Xena was doing her very best here, and she wasn't the expert in sensitive chats. Could it hurt to try?
"Can you hand me my scroll case?"
Standing knee deep in a stream so cold it made her bones hurt to stand in it, Xena scrubbed her scalp vigourously. This particular stream was steady, getting low but never drying up, even during the worst of droughts. The Sun was just climbing from below the horizon, the birds were singing. There wasn't the slightest suggestion of the acrid smoke accompanying the work of raiders, a pleasant surprise, considering how close they actually were to Amphipolis, and the various smaller hamlets all around it the raiders often took as easy marks. On the way to the stream, Xena had come across a deer, and the animal had proven calm, happy to watch her in the dappled growing light, so long as she kept her distance. The animal was a tall, beautiful red doe with a carriage that reminded the warrior irresistably of a dancer. For nearly half a candlemark human and deer had kept each other company, the deer picking daintily among the shoots and branches, the warrior simply watching, the intent to bathe in the stream half forgotten. Eventually, the deer had simply begun making her way deeper into the forest, and Xena watched her go, struck again by the grace and surprising size of the animal.
She considered the animal further as she stepped from the stream and began briskly toweling enough water to keep it from her eyes and avoid dripping from the tips of her fingers. Striding back to camp and letting the air finish carrying away the water, she decided it must be due to the older forests, and their proximity to the Amazon Nation. Further south human hunters and human homes crowded the deer out, and those left behind were often small, the better to elude their pursuers. But here there were fewer pursuers, and Artemis' power lay directly over much of the land.
Kneeling down beside the dozing bard, she gently shook the fair haired woman's shoulder. "Hey, sleepyhead, wake up."
"Nuh uh. Getting up in the morning is overrated. Morning should come in the early afternoon." grumbled Gabrielle. Her lover laughed.
"Then it wouldn't be morning, would it? And it won't be morning much longer if you don't wake up." Gabrielle dragged the furs over her head. "If you don't get up, I'm eating your breakfast." A pair of outraged green eyes promptly peered over the edge of the sleeping fur, glaring.
"You don't play fair, Xena."
"Nope." the warrior replied cheerfully.
"You're sure in a great mood this morning." Gabrielle commented after dressing and having a half mug of tea.
"Nah." Xena considered the idea. "I'm just happy you're writing again." The short hiatus in Gabrielle's work had shown them both the results of her not putting quill to paper... a grumpy, depressed bard.
"So," having allowed the siilence to stretch a bit while they ate breakfast. "back to your Mom's place to assure her... again, that you're not dead." the last two words spoken with the proper, faintly melodramatic tones.
"Gods." sighed Xena. "Don't remind me. She's gonna freak. Wonder if word about Ares has reached Amphipolis yet."
"Don't see why not... it's going on eight moons now, and he hasn't shown up to so much as start a brawl." Gabrielle twirled her staff a little. "We could take a detour you know, and delay the inevitable."
"Could we?" Damn, Xena sighed inwardly. Think I just walked myself right into a damned shopping trip.
"Why don't we stop by that new garrison town Athens established near the Chalkidikes? We could top up our supplies a bit, get some other news."
"Look... I know you're about due for your dose of browsing, haggling, and squandering... but can't it wait?" given the choice between a noisy, crowded market and facing an irate mother, Xena found herself seriously considering skipping the whole damned thing and heading for the mountains.
"Just because it's not your thing..."
There were days, when Xena wasn't too sure what she had gotten herself into with Gabrielle. The woman could pretty much wrap her around her little finger and brag about her cool new jewelry to passersby. On one hand, Xena wasn't quite sure she liked that. On the other, she wasn't quite sure she could change it. A few members of the garrison sauntered by, and she winced at the sight of them. Overweight, carrying ill tended weapons. These fellows seemed to have gotten a little too confident about the difficulties of asserting Athenian law from arms' length. They figured they didn't have to obey it either. After a moment, one of the men sauntered back, equipped with a jug's worth of accumulated wisdom. Xena knew this because he was carrying the empty wine jug in one hand, his sword in the other.
"This is an Athenian outpost." he declared, once he was within shouting range, as he perceived it. Xena grimmaced, and tried to breath shallowly. Even almost a bodylength away the fumes alone were almost enough to anaestitize a charging centaur. "You'll have to surrender your weapons and armour, or face arrest." He kept spoiling his almost sobre sounding delivery with hiccups.
"Tell ya what," drawled Xena. "I'll surrender my weapons if you can walk along the wagon track there." she pointed to the deep rut in the packed dirt street. The hoplite laughed with boozy arrogance.
"Stupid peasant." he sneered at her. Throwing the jug away... thankfully it missed the various passersby and shattered in a relatively out of the way spot, and managed to sheath his sword. His companions were watching him, expressions mostly amused. The leader caught Xena's eye and waved a hand at her. "We don't want trouble." he mouthed. "Just passing through." Xena gestured back. In the meantime, the drunk hoplite had made a truly valiant attempt to walk along the rut. But it kept moving, and his balance seemed to be off. "Dammit." he cursed in frustration.
Smiling slightly, Xena quietly left him, searching for a certain red-blonde headed bard.
Kyanaegis chewed her lip, and scowled. Eratosthenes had made his play the night before, trying to gather a large enough contingent of men to mutiny. But the current leader's plan had appeal even after a long day marching in the heat. The first two lieutenants he had spoken to had simply knocked him unconscious, stripped him of his armour and weapons, and marched him in front of Kyanaegis.
"Well, well." she drawled. "We appear to have a case of irreconcilable differences." Eratosthenes glared furiously around himself.
"You're all cowards!" he shouted.
"Perhaps. Still, in your position, I would worry far more about my problems." Kyanaegis said mildly. "After all, the penalty for your behaviour is death."
"Bah." spat Eratosthenes. "You're nothing but a gutless woman."
"An interesting viewpoint." Option two rather than option one. She picked up the crossbow from its position, leaned against the side of the rock she was perched on. Examining the mechanism, the firing groove. Then loading it. "Unfortunately, a highly counterproductive one." Kyanaegis aimed almost negligently. "Before you spoke, I would have been more careful. Dear me, look at that. That was your sword arm, wasn't it?"
Eratosthenes stared from his place on the ground, where the impact of the crossbow bolt with his shoulder had thrown him.
"Now, you need only to decide whether you would like to change careers or not."
"Why? Because you're too cowardly to kill me?"
"No." Kyanaegis' tone could have been considered friendly, under different circumstances. "Had you decided to avoid crossing me again, I would have given you the antidote." She turned and walked back into the main camp, disappearing into her tent and flopping onto the vaguely divan shaped pile constructed from bundles of tied tents and blankets, all useless in the present hot weather, but kept because the impulse to hoard was too strong to ignore now the living conditions had gotten so bad. Kyanaegis counted slowly and patiently to one hundred. The remaining four lietuenants burst into the tent, lining up in order by the map table.
"Excellent. Are we all on the same page?" a pleasing chorus of affirmations of loyalty answered her. "Of course, I am well aware you would seize my position at the first opportunity." Silence. "But for the time being, our goals are the same." Pointing at the map. "The Athenian legion is barely three candlemarks away. Sequestered throughout the edges of the forest as we are, we shall be able to pick Amphipolis off at our leisure. Amphipolis has no trained fighters, and there will be no Athenian regulars to help them." Kyanaegis smiled at her compliment of sturdy, fairly clean lieutenants. "In short, sitting duck, gentlemen."
"So it seems we're getting an Athenian garrison to add to our problems." Cyrene sighed, and pushed a few locks of hair behind one ear. "I have a bad feeling they mean to impose taxes."
The table in Cyrene's kitchen was still cluttered with the dishes from the warrior and bard's late dinner. The room had suffered a bit of remodelling, including new plaster on the walls and the addition of a larger cutting board since their last visit. "The two of you are allowed to come here when some crisis isn't developing... or when people haven't been running around claiming you're dead." She placed a large pot full of water on the fire to heat, then turned to begin sorting out the herbs she would use to flavour what would be tomorrow's main meal.
"Mother, it's not as if we knew about the plans Athens suddenly has for Amphipolis." Xena got to her feet, stretching her arms and back uncomfortably. "I'm going to go check on Argo. Be right back." She was out the back door before Cyrene or Gabrielle could say a word.
"Time for an escape." Gabrielle grinned at the older women.
"You'd think I raised her in that stable, the way she aways gravitates there." Cyrene huffed. She frowned, considering the story she had heard so far. "I can't help thinking you seem to be leaving parts of the story out." The bard winced. The innkeeper was very shrewd. Gabrielle had left out anything about their mysterious night visitor, or the true origins of her and Xena's new armour. If Cyrene ever learned about it, Xena would have to be the one who told her. The bearhead sigil allowed nothing less.
"Don't worry about it. I can see you're holding out for some good reason." Cyrene didn't sound terribly happy, but then, she could see Gabrielle wasn't pleased with the gaps she had left either.
"There really is a good reason, Cyrene." Gabrielle asserted, hoping her tone showed the problem didn't come from a lack of trust or respect. The innkeeper patted her gently on the shoulder, then smiled to herself. Almost like she knew Gabrielle was feeling uncomfortable, Xena had reappeared for the rescue. The innkeeper then shooed them to bed, laughing out loud at their reactions when she told them to pull the bed away from the wall before they got boisterous, as the last time a few people had been kept awake. Even Xena had blushed.
Wiping the last few dishes and stowing them away before their quick return to duty in the morning, Cyrene's expression turned wistful. In many ways, Xena was her daughter. Those eyes, the stocky build. But the feral grace, dark hair and flashes of irresistable charm had nothing to do with her. Especially with her back turned, arms folded, a pose Xena rarely took, the resemblance to her lover from so long ago was uncanny. Cyrene bit her lip. But something had happened. Her strange divine lover never had come back. The very few of her friends who knew the truth about Xena, and thankfully had kept silent in spite of everything, believed the mysterious deity had abandoned her. Somehow Cyrene was sure this was not the case. Was it denial? Wiping the counter, Cyrene looked at the question as honestly as she could.
No, she decided, that wasn't denial. Truth, was what the belief was. A person didn't stick around until their daughter was a year old, then disappear without even collecting the few obviously extraordinary things they kept with them at all times, or where they could always find them. In spite of herself, every day Cyrene would glance toward the strange stone roughly the size of a fist still sitting on her dresser. The day her lover had disappeared, the stone had changed from crystal clear, so perfect letters were hardly altered when looked at through it, to cold, opaque grey. Maybe thinking when the stone became clear again her lover would triapse through the inn door, warbling a delighted, 'Honey I'm home.' was even more irrational. Most times she didn't think of it. Once in awhile the idea would intrude on her anyway.
Putting aside those troubling ideas, and all the confusion and questions they invoked, she found herself thinking of another set of truly unanswerable questions belief could grant no consolation for. Pantariste's scroll had been, diplomatic, when it arrived from Themiskyra. She had refrained from asking why Xena had never been sent to Themiskyra. Mainly because, she had two other greater whys to ask.
For one, Cyrene had more a plea than an answer. Was it so bad, was it so awful she had wanted her daughter to live a normal life? To stick with the ordinary lives mortals normally led? Everyone heard stories of Hercules. Most saw them as tales of bravery, of great deeds. maybe. Cyrene saw something else. To her they were stories of a person who was caught between the worlds. The new Greek society and the older ways still prevalent across much of the Argolid. The deities on Olympus and the mortals down here. Caught between all these worlds, with a place in none of them and tormented by that as much as by a callous father. This had come across even in the stories of Hercules' younger days. The innkeeper had determined that her daughter would never experience those things. Not if she could prevent it.
Trying to force her to behave 'like a girl' and curb those aggressive, temperamental impulses had seemed like the best way to achieve that. After all, Xena could hardly suffer from things she never found herself forced to deal with. The loss of her other parent was bitter, but perhaps the resulting lack of obvious immortal interference in her childhood was the unexpected upside to that.
But Cyrene had never counted on her daughter's will, formidable from when she was very small. Xena wanted to learn how to wield a sword, so she watched the people who did, and practiced with a sturdy stick out in the fields after settling the sheep to graze. The sheep were always well tended, and the days spent guiding them up and down, in and out of the hills soon made her wiry and strong. By the time Cyrene found out her daughter had learned how to fight with a sword, it was far too late to do anything about it. And so with the flips, and cartwheels and the rest. And still she had thought sending Xena to the Amazons would be worse, not better. The more this behaviour was encouraged, the harder it would be for her later, when it would have to stop. The Amazons certainly wouldn't discourage her. And, Cyrene had refused to admit to herself then, she would lose her daughter to the place where girls were always free.
Things had gone more and more badly between them, until finally Cyrene found she and her daughter didn't speak at all. Xena still did her share of the chores, but she was chafing to leave, to get away. Even Lyceus couldn't see a way to get her to stay, and he wanted her to almost more than anyone.
Then Cortese had settled the whole thing for them.
Cyrene sighed. Served her right, she thought wryly, brooding about such thngs at the end of a long, tiring day. Nothing but melancholy could ever come of that. Snuffing out the candles until she got to the one she would take with her upstairs, she paused by the doorway, watching the darkness. For a moment, it seemed as if a tall person was standing near the window, watching the Moon. The innkeeper shook herself. No one was there. The tricks of tired eyes. Pulling the door shut quietly, she turned to clamber up the stairs.
Kyanaegis leaned against a tree trunk, watching two of her lieutenants argue over the gold embossed helmet taken from the leader of the Athenian hoplites. The surprised men had put up a determined fight. A count when it was all over revealed two had escaped outright, and only five were left alive enough to be a bit of a nuisance to confine. They were, based on Kyanaegis' rule of never killing anyone you didn't have to. A few grumbled she was soft for it, but even followers of Ares tended to be uncomfortable with the idea of summarily executing unarmed, bound men. Now it was time to set up the next section of the plan, the taking of Amphipolis.
Energies now directed to a specific goal, the grumbling and whining was at an absolute minimum. Any indulgence of it was frequently stopped by a sharp blow or angry snap from a compatriot. They were watched over, subtly directed by Kyanaegis' moving presence. She never acted to stop any complaints. She didn't need to. Eratosthenes' fate was part of it. Most of it was simply the rough, hardy respect she had managed to earn from the men, regardless of the fact many of them were far larger. Those who sneered at her for being a woman had lessened over the years. Not once had she ever shied from a fight, and only once had anyone ever made a comment that it must be her time of the moon. Rumour had it he still spoke in a high squeak and walked with an awkward limp.
The army would camp for the night a half day's march from Amphipolis, sheltered by a fold in the land. One of the lieutenants quipped how they must be meant to succeed, after all, the spot was great, almost like the Earth had provided a cradle against the elements. Strangers to the area as they were, they had no idea the distinct lack of vegetation, the ground stripped and hard didn't reflect the recent severe dry weather nearly so much as the fact it channeled severe flash floods with each heavy rain. The weather, with the perversity leading many to believe it was a rough brother to the fickle Ares promptly demonstrated this by producing a stupendous rainstorm.
Knee deep in mud, cursing furiously throughout the efforts to retrieve weapons, tents, and the occasional man who couldn't swim, one thing was soon clear. Taking Amphipolis was going to have to wait another day.
Ion struggled over a rough hill, studded with chunks of rock and protruding tree roots. Philip, the only other survivor of the group had run the opposite direction. For afew steps Ion had followed him, until the ambushers couldn't see them anymore. Then he had changed direction. Philip cared not a whit for Amphipolis. But Ion had a different perspective on things. The memory of his former home in a small Greek village had never left him, and the thought a vicious army might have the chance to wipe out a place simply because it was small and a bit out of the way appalled him. He tripped, and fell hard. Pushing himself onto his hands and knees, he struggled to catch his breath. "Must get to Amphipolis, must warn them." he whispered. Then, those who wanted to run could run, and the children and women could be moved to safety. Small consolation with so few fighters to defend the place, he knew. Better than the alternatives.
The exhaustion had begun to turn his legs to rubber when he first caught sight of outlying homes, and beyond them the bulk of a larger building. Probably the inn his superior had been ordered to forcibly commandeer and convert into a fort. Pushing himself harder, he managed to drag his legs into a shambling run. Candlemarks yet before dawn, and even that barely enough time. Approaching the large building, he stumbled, the half Moon's light hardly helping him find his feet among the scattered, roughened cobbles and ruts. Then he managed to fall over the horse trough and slam into the railing along the building's front porch. When his hands finally collided with the heavy front door, he began pounding on it with vigour. "Help!" he bellowed. "Somebody wake up, you're all in danger!"
The first respondent had been the irrate innkeeper, who told him angrily the reason no lamp was lit outside was because she didn't accept new guests long after everyone had finally got to their hard earned rest. Ion hurriedly explained, or rather tried to, that he was part of the Athenian garrison sent to bring law to Amphipolis, and they had been ambushed. Unfortunately, the implication Amphipolis was some sort of haven for brigands and others with a preference for antisocial and vicious behaviour earned him a cold, angry glare and the shutter shut resoundingly in his face.
"Okay, I admit, I should have completely rephrased that." he muttered, unsure what to do next. He couldn't possibly wait until morning...
The door of the inn came open, exposing the older woman who had yelled at him, dressed in a robe, holding a taper in one hand. beside her was a tall, strikingly beautiful woman, sword in one hand. Both had startling blue eyes.
"Ummm... I'm unarmed." Ion squeaked, struck by the corded muscles in the younger woman's arms and her distinct air of no nonsense.
"How about you just explain what you're doing here and what you want, leaving out the insults this time." Thankfully Ion did a better job the second time around, and was soon set on a stool by the main fire, getting his injuries attended to.
"Any idea what size the army is?" asked the younger woman, sewing up a long gash in his shoulder.
"Not really. We were ambushed... they had iron discipline, though. No improvising on the plan, no leaving off killing us to grab the horses." By now a third woman had entered the common room, all blonde hair and green eyes offsetting the darker headed, blue eyed women.
"You never thought for a moment this army was in league with Amphipolis?" the new arrival asked, eyes keen with curiosity.
"No." Ion replied. He stopped, wondering. Why hadn't he? "Amphipolis has no army."
"Maybe those were hired mercenaries."
"With discipline like that? Impossible!" scoffed Ion.
"Precisely." Finished with his arm, his healer stepped back. "Remember that when you get back to Athens. And remember to add Amphipolis doesn't want Athens, and doesn't need Athens."
"What about the army that's coming to destroy it?" women were beyond arrogant here, Ion thought to himself in amazement.
"Oh, we'll take care of the army. Won't we, bard?"
"You betcha, warrior." drawled Gabrielle. "No idea how yet, but that's hardly a problem."
"Word of the night, Xena?" the smaller woman teased, slipping an arm around the darker one's waist.
"Hey, it fits."
The common room was full to bursting with the town elders, the homegrown militia, and pretty much anyone else who was willing to suffer being squished against the back wall. Still others crowded around the opened front shutters. Gabrielle took one look at the already uncomfortable, hot people, and ordered everyone out of doors. The mud from last night's thunderstorm was a damn sight better than the alternatives under the circumstances. The grim faced villagers gazed unflinchingly at her. They trusted her, she knew, and they trusted Xena too. Chances were they never expected things to come through an almost complete circle like this, the bard reflected. There was a fine story in it. Now it was a matter of waiting for Xena and her two light footed companions to come back from checking out the somewhat ragged, soggy army who had done them the great favour of camping in the middle of a natural sluice way. The gouge in the Earth guided the torrents of rain water from the sudden, pounding storms that often closed out the summers down and towards the river, helping give the site of Amphipolis an irregular, fertile ring of farmland instead of river marsh.
The warrior who occupied Gabrielle's thoughts was deftly weaving through the tall grasses, and worked her way to the very edges of the first camp, where a team of men picked impatiently through the wreckage, apparently trying to salvage equipment. A moment, and she could pick out their voices. "I can't believe this... at the rate it's going, it'll be days before we get moving." One man angrily tossed his bundle of finds angrily back into the mud. "Idiot." spat his companion. "Anyway, what difference does it make? The place is the equivalent of a lamb sent to the slaughterhouse. It'll be a gas, and I for one, am going to truly enjoy every moment spent destroying Xena's birthplace." Digging his pile out of the mud again, the first man shrugged. "Why? Ain't like a corpse is gonna care."
They didn't have much to say Xena hadn't heard variations of before until she could repeat them by rote in the bad old days. Getting close enough to the command camp wasn't easy. The watch was well set, and the leader had chosen a bald, backlit patch of ground in the centre for the command tent, forcing a dash across open ground to get to it. Skill, speed, and luck were the only things between Xena and immediate capture. She smiled. Just the way she liked it. Counting slowly until the first gap in the watch pattern appeared, she slipped through it across the majority of the camp, then dropped in a pile of supplies covered by a tarp. A mistake, the things were already musty smelling. Xena crinkled her nose. "Never pile up soggy gear." she breathed, and began counting again for the all important gap giving her access to the command tent.
Pausing just long enough to cut a waist high slit with her breast dagger, Xena slipped inside on her belly, using a stick she had brought for the purpose to weigh down the edges and prevent the cut from showing immediately. Allowing her eyes to adjust to the lower light level, she smiled again. She had marked where the front of the tent was, and guessed the cot the general slept on would be against the back, giving them a full view of the entry and plenty of room and time to respond to an intruder. The guess had been sound, and now the cot shielded her from view. No one else was there, so she carefully schooled her breathing and settled in to wait.
Finally the flap of the tent was flipped back, and four people entered. Four were men with bland, anonymous faces. The fifrth... Xena breathed out a long slow breath of surprise. Her opponent from the place of Ares' imprisonment. No doubt her return from the dead had quite a story behind it.
"I can't help thinking you're going to get far more out of this than us." complained one of the men.
"Of course you do, Anakreon. And certainly, if you finish consolidating the take over of Amphipolis before I take the sword of Ares from the temple, feel free to make a play for it. Rest assured that if you do not stick with the plan, I will simply destroy you." The four men took suitably submissive attitudes, eyes dropping to the floor, hands clasped behind their backs. Regardless of how rebellious they sometimes felt, they knew who held power in this army, however precariously the hold sometimes was. "Tomorrow, we march on Amphipolis. Keep the casualties to a minimum. The less of a mess we make, the better. Despite the escape of those two Athenians, resistance is bound to be little more than token even if they have been warned."
Listening only a few moments more, Xena worked her way slowly out the back of the tent again, pinning down the cut section on the outside. Daringly, she hared across the space, trusting her quick feet and silent movements to bring her successfully across. Then one last patient count, and out into the fields to head back to Amphipolis.
The Amphipolitans were restless and a little angry. Their homes and lives were at stake, and all they were doing was standing around in the mud?
"No, you're gonna put up fortifications, and gather up your defenses." Xena shouted over the growing grumbling.
"Xena, are you saying we're fighting those people tomorrow?" one of the elders blurted incredulously.
"Fighting them outright is our last resort. Instead, we're going to bluff. Their general has made a serious mistake. No scouts have been sent to check us out, and from the look of it, no scouts are going to be sent. Right now they believe we're an easy mark. We just need to reverse the belief."
More than a few carts lost their lives that day as they were used to bulk up the pallisades. Amphipolitans living outside the pale were brought in, and a steady stream of people went from within the pale out again to safer shelter, in case things didn't work out. Xena made a short lived attempt to convince her mother to go too, but the innkeeper flatly refused to abandon the inn, let alone her children, and that was that. Instead she helped make bottles of strong liquor into the fiery bombs so devastating to wooden seige engines and the calm of men and horses. Before the day was over, the outskirts of Amphipolis were all but unrecognizable, with a ditch dug around the pallisades, full of wooden spikes and piles of nettles. Men who managed to crawl successfully through the spikes would soon find their faces and hands swollen and inflamed from the fiercely stinging fronds, and forced to climb just to reach the bottom of the wall. Piles of rocks on the inner side of the pallisade were ready for dumping on their heads. The tanner had a few nastier things accompanying the rock piles near his shop, and Xena and Gabrielle had been amused to see men dutifully lining up to contribute all day.
"If the situation weren't so serious, this would just be funny, in a tacky sort of way." Gabrielle commented, watching a cheerful man strut by after doing his share.
"Yeah... this way they do all feel like they're really doing something. And the tanner will be set for the winter, one way or the other."
"I'm not even going to there."
"Hey, I just made the observation, I never actually went there." Xena pulled the bard to a halt. "I better tell you who the general is, and what they're after." They found a quiet spot a ways from the racket of the various defensive projects. "You remember the woman we ran into, when we were dealing with Ares?"
"I've been trying to forget." Gabrielle smiled wanly.
"She's the general."
"What?" the bard was a study in disbelief. "Xena, that can't be possible."
"It shouldn't be, but apparently it is in her case. The infamous Kyanaegis." the warrior reordered her thoughts again, then continued. "Without some deity's energy to hold them together, temples fall apart. Every temple of Ares in Greece has gone to bits, but one, according to the people in Kyanaegis' camp."
"Lemme guess." sighed Gabrielle.
"If you want." a crooked smile.
"What's supposed to be in it?" a raised eyebrow was her answer. "Not that damned sword again!" groaned Gabrielle. A chuckle answered her.
"It's supposed to be the reason the temple isn't a pile of rubble. I figure, let's go find out. It's our dumb luck the damn thing is inside the pale."
The temple was black, formed of black basalt slabs with the usual set of wide front steps. The torches on either side of the door, typically alight even in broad daylight, had finally been allowed to go out. Or perhaps they could no longer be lit. The doors opened at a touch, and the long narrow windows created by the arrangement of offsets in the slabs allowed spear like shafts of light to make the interior navagable. The torches were out inside, of course. The structure of the building was sound, but the various sigils, sculptures, and carvings of Ares or his icons in metal and stone were scattered across the floor in fragments and dust. The bard was so close to her now she might as well have had her arms around her waist, Xena figured.
"Fine." squeaked Gabrielle. Her skin was crawling like the time she picked up lice at one of the seedier inns they had found themselves in.
The altar was smooth and black, it's gleaming surface surprisingly cold. No mark was anywhere on it. Not a name or dedicatory inscription, nothing.
"This can't be right." breathed Xena. "I remember, this used to be a carved altar, with grooves to let the blood of the sacrifices run off." Beyond the strange, smooth altar, and the wreckage, there was nothing. A thorough search during which they went so far as to lever up flagstones gave up no sign of Ares' sword.
"There's too many pieces in this puzzle." Gabrielle muttered in irritation. "So what isholding this place up?"
"In a manner of speaking, I do." Sitting on the smooth stone altar was their strange, ragged visitor from moons ago. "You remember I said I was trapped. Well, here I am." they patted the altar. "Unfortunately, Ares' powers are not what holds me here."
"This is a box then, like the cache?" Gabrielle asked.
"No, no. I am inside the stone. Playing around with ghostly images in lieu of actually walking around. Boring and unimpressive after you've seen me do it a couple of times, eh?"
"Where is the sword, then, if it isn't here?" Xena asked.
"Gone. The rockfall capable of wrecking your chakram wrecked the sword too. Just as well. Ugly, disgusting thing. I'm afraid Kyanaegis is going to be very disappointed." the shadow-like figure stretched out, laying on one side on the stone. "She is half divine, and unfortunate enough to have lost the ability to stay dead. Not too sure what she actually wants."
"You make death sound like a talent." Gabrielle said.
"Oh well, obviously it isn't that. But once you can't do it anymore, or stay dead... immortality can be so tedious." The person held their peace for a few moments. "I am glad you took the armour. It is no guarantee, but now I worry a little less."
"What do you have to do with my mother?" Xena asked bluntly.
"Everything, and nothing. I can't actually tell you."
"Great." the warrior muttered sourly.
A cry of alarm went up. "Just couldn't resist a raid, could they." Xena ran out, already drawing her sword, and whistling for Argo almost before she was out of doors. Gabrielle hesitated, staring at the strange apparition, who was now standing, arms folded, back turned.
"Why do you look familiar?"
"No reason." a quick, uncomfortable answer. Gabrielle spent no longer on the question. Argo's unmistakable canter was coming by, and she ran outside, grabbing Xena's hand and vaulting into the saddle behind her.
"Why are they raiding? I though the all out offensive was tomorrow anyway?"
"Scare tactics." Xena replied shortly, spurring Argo to a gallop to join twenty other people armed with staves and clubs on their way out of the pale. Part one of rehabilitating Amphipolis' weakling image.
The raiders were riding in a crisp diamond formation, the men on the outside ready with crossbows loaded with burning brands. They were yelling and screaming, going for the maximum impact. Xena smiled. She'd give them maximum impact. She gave her war whoop, and rode straight at them.
"Oh crap!" Gabrielle blurted behind her. The literal impact she expected never came.
The leader's eyes went wide, and he hauled back on the reins so hard his horse reeled and sat back on its haunches, neighing in protest. The others tried to follow suit, creating a comic pile up of horses, men, and crossbows. One man shot out of the mess, howling and beating desperately on the flames in his clothes. the reason for the sudden stop finally came from the half stunned throat of the leader.
"Xena! It's Xena, back from the dead like Kyanaegis!" this was a catalyst for the crossbowmen, who proceeded to fire at her in panic, trying to cover their hurried escape. Ill aimed and shot irregularly, Xena found herself easily able to catch or avoid them, and Gabrielle fiercely whacked others out of the air. Within moments, the raid had dissipated in ignominous retreat, and the defenders stood around for a bit, nonplussed.
"A course mind, I'm appreciating this stroke of luck. Feels like a Tartarus of a let down anyway." a rough hewn farmer scratched one ear. "Maybe ye can just scare them away like that tomorrow then, lass?"
"I'll see what I can do." drawled Xena.
One long finger hit the table with a measured tap, tap, tap. "Tell me, again." Kyanaegis ordered in flat, measured tones. "Tell me again, what came of your disobedience of my direct order not to raid, and therefore grant the Amphipolitans any warning."
Anakreon swallowed hard. He knew there was no fooling Kyanaegis. He had hoped to take his small group into the town, start a few fires, and get the sword of Ares for himself. Now he had to hope he could talk fast enough to save his life. His survival so far was already a miracle. That Xena hadn't destroyed him where he was, on his knees in the dirt, he didn't know. Unless for exactly this purpose. Telling who the new ruler of war was.
"We had almost reached the town when a great, ululating war whoop all but drowned us out. She was there, mounted on a giant horse, and it was as if there was a wall in front of us."
"Of course." Kyanaegis growled.
"Her eyes were glowing in the dark. She's not dead, and I've seen her before, that was definitely her, thought the armour is different and I didn't see the bard. The other men panicked."
"You weren't panicking at all." Kyanaegis said dryly.
"No... er, anyway... the other men panicked, and got their crossbows pointed at her and fired. Not a single damn bolt hit her."
"Indeed." Kyanaegis wasn't impressed.
"She's a Goddess now, Kyanaegis, and she's watching over Amphipolis. We can't win against her."
"Maybe. I'm not so sure." Because I don't believe she's a Goddess, you damned idiot.
Anakreon scowled. Things were looking up just a little, though. He still wasn't dead.
The tentflap jerked open, and the rest of the lieutenants burst in. "Idiot!" one of them shouted furiously at Anakreon. "You've ruined us!"
"Oh?" Kyanaegis interrupted. She had a bad feeling she knew what was coming next.
"The men are terrified. They refuse to fight. They think the new goddess of war will punish them for considering the destruction of her hometown. They insist on sending a delegation to placate her tomorrow morning." Theseion, this time. He always kept to the calm side, but even he was white eyed and frightened.
"You," Kyanageis pointed at the one who had yelled at Anakreon. "You don't think she's a Goddess?"
"Furk no!" he snapped. "Of course she is. I served in her army once. She despises cowardice. Running away is cowardice. We're gonna haff to grovel to save our asses!"
Kyanaegis stood up abruptly, her face white with rage. "I will not, I will not degrade myself by groveling to anyone. I never groveled to anyone, not Ares, not anyone."
"Hardly matters to you, you're immortal."
"No, actually, I'm not. Just lucky." The number was eight. She rolled the dice. Snake eyes. In a life full of astonishing breaks, weird good fortunes, and weirder bad ones, rolling snake eyes continuously was unnerving. She was so good at dice games, the men refused to play her, having decided she could make even an unweighted pair of dice fall as she wished. They just couldn't believe it was simply her odd sort of luck.
"If you insist on this delegation, I will go along, because to do otherwise is not my way. Otherwise, I will even do you the favour of remaining silent." White to the lips, Kyanaegis stalked from the command tent.
"This will go ill for us, I know it." Theseion again.
"Ow! Ow! Let me go, you great apes! You think I'd walk up to your front gate and knock if I was an enemy? What do you take me for?" A tall Amazon was stuck under a pile of flushed and triumphant Amphipolitans, who were feeling just a little jumpy, it being another morning, and Kyanaegis' army expected any time. "Serves me right for being stupid enough to volunteer to do that damned Pantariste a favour."
"Hey, what's..." Gabrielle stopped short. Four Amphipolitans were sitting on a tall Amazon, whose face was going purplish for lack of air. The three men and one woman started to look sheepish. "Ummm... maybe..." the bard gestured upward with one hand, and the Amphipolitans hurriedly got off of the rumpled Amazon. "My name's Gabrielle... sorry about all this. We're expecting some serious trouble this morning, and everyone is jumpy." Now the other woman was standing up, she could see it was the juggler who had been performing for the children on her first day in Themiskyra. "I'm afraid I don't know your name." very pointedly said.
"My name is Gorgo. Pantariste asked me to carry some scrolls Xena had asked for with me on my way south and drop them here, since this place was on my way." She pulled one scroll loose of her pack, showing the unmistakable sigil. Gratified by Gabrielle's nod, she turned and stuck her tongue out at the Amphipolitans.
"Well, come on then. You can help us deal with the mess we've got on our hands while you're here." Gabrielle had no idea how prophetic this statement would be. Gorgo merely scowled and followed, swearing to herself never, ever, ever to do Pantariste a favour again.
"Hello, Xena." Gorgo said quietly, when they stood face to face again. The seasons stretched long between the last time they had spoken and now, though she held no grudge about that. She had had her struggles, and Xena had had hers, and that had a way of keeping people from corresponding regularly. Well aware of the sharp, startled look Gabrielle was shooting between them, Gorgo added, "I see you haven't mentioned me."
"True." Xena agreed. "You haven't come up naturally in conversation. And in Themiskyra I wasn't up to dealing with those days." A slight nod from the tall Amazon. A mere glance had shown her those facts then, in the unaffected gaze of the blonde woman, and the bandages and splints on Argo's rider.
"Gabrielle was saying I could help you 'deal with this mess.' Perhaps you have need of me again." Why she had volunteered for Pantariste's little carrying job wasn't a crisp, clear thing to Gorgo. She couldn't decide if it was rank curiosity, or just a sense her talents would be just what Xena needed, one more time.
"Well, a fine warrior like yourself just before an attack by a warlord's army is always nice." Xena smiled. "But not the other things."
"After all this time, I still make you nervous?"
A faint, mirthless smile. "Your powers aren't nice and non-creepy like Herc's, you know."
Gorgo shook her head. "The reason is not that." She turned to the bard, who was beginning to look angry. "Yet another perhaps... perhaps we should tell the story, before Gabrielle has a stroke."
Some walls were easier to climb than others. This wall was not one of them, Gorgo concluded. Removing her footwear and packing it away, she glanced at the base of the wall, tracing along its length. Ah... there, in a gentle, dune-like pattern, was a pile of fine dirt, bone dry. Perfect stuff, Gorgo saw, smiling happily. First, she brushed it all over her hands, digging it into the palms. Then, and only then, did she step in the dust with her feet. Satisfied sweat would be the least of her worries for the height of the wall anyway, she checked the coil of rope and it's grappling hook were in easy reach. "Excellent." she breathed. Stepping up to the wall, she got a grip on the slim width of stone protruding from the mortar, and set one foot against the wall. Lifting one foot and pressing herself upward with it as she pulled, levering herself on the slender purchase on the brick, she began her assent.
Standing to one side, waiting inpatiently, was Xena. "Hurry up!" she hissed at Gorgo, who now seemed to be clinging to the wall like a great spider. With half of its legs missing.
"Patience is a virtue, even for warlords, Xena." Gorgo replied calmly, continuing her slow, steady, methodical ascent. The warlord grunted, unimpressed. "The watch does not check this section. There is no reason to... barring the fact no one can climb this wall."
"Oh yes... but I acknowledge my unfair advantages."
"My men have been arguing whether a Goddess or god was one of your parents."
"Oh, a Goddess of course. I'm an Amazon."
"For me to know, and you to wonder." Now at the top of the wall, Gorgo began arranging the rope.
"Here's another question. Why are you helping me?"
"Because it pleases me." Gorgo dropped the free end of the rope to the ground, and watched with some amusement as Xena used it to labour her way up the wall. "I have a friend, whom I think would like to see you live, despite your unfortunate indulgence in rapine and destruction."
"I like your friend, then." Xena cursed in disgust, picking at hemp slivers in her hands. The Amazon pulled up the rope and coiled it up again.
"The way out may turn out not to be in this direction. No sense leaving behind good rope."
The two women walked unhindered across the roof of the building. In the centre was a hole. They knelt on either side of it, peering downward into the fully lit building interior. The building appeared to be a treasury, full of more wealth and art than most rulers could imagine let alone ever see.
"And Croesus is supposed to have more than this. Right."
"Of course he does, if you measure value in gold. What you see is an illusion, Xena. The portal shows you what you value, not the valuables actually present. Which is why of course, I'm here... because I can see through the illusion."
"This is the illusion?" Xena hissed in disgust. "I was expecting something else, impressive.. a drooling Kerberuus, or something."
"That's impressive?" muttered Gorgo. "Do you want the scabbard or not?"
"Yeah I want it." snapped Xena. The scabbard provided a certain amount of protection from injuries. She wasn't entirely sure what the protection consisted of, but she needed every advantage she could get. Her new armour left a lot exposed, especially her back, her way of shaming her men into facing forward and refusing to retreat. Only a person who never ran could go into a battle with only armour on the front of their body.
"Come on, then." The hole had been placed at a clear spot left by the placement of the rafters, and it was the rafters they walked on to get to the room's perimeter. Xena would glance down occasionally, and rub at her eyes. The stuff down there looked real.
"If no treasure is actually down there, what is? Why bother to guard it then?" The Amazon paused, gazing into the mainly empty area below her. Incongruously, the centre of the floor was occupied by a coat rack. The scabbard hung from one prong, a tattered cloak from another, and that was it.
"This place is guarded because that's what Artemis told them to do, centuries ago. They continue to as a matter of faith."
"That's stupid." Xena snorted.
"I don't know. Everyone has their bit of faith in something." Gorgo set her bare feet on the floor, wincing a little at its chill. Xena followed her unhappily, chafing because she was not leading, and because she couldn't shake the illusion. "Here." The warlord jumped, automatically taking what Gorgo handed her. Astonishingly, the illusion finally collapsed, and Xena found herself gazing at a battered scabbard, marked with two solid brass mounts with inset sapphire jewels decorating it.
"Perfect." Xena breathed.
"Thought you'd like it. Best to leave now." Gorgo led them through the main corridor. "Watch gap." she hissed, and they dashed through it. They had made it almost out when the alarm went up. Xena roughly buckled the scabbard around herself and drew her sword. Slipping three sections of wood from her capacious pack, Gorgo quickly assembled a staff. "Don't stop moving." Then the guardians began to arrive. Momentum carried them toward the door even more than the fight, but a knot of women was gathered in the doorway.
"Any bright ideas?" Xena snapped as she hurled two of the watchers off of her back.
"Not sure you'd call it bright." Gorgo whipped up one hand and twitched it open. The group of Amazons blocking the door were hurled out if the way, and the two women dove out, finding their horses almost immediately and galloping off. Not until the sounds of pursuit couldn't be perceived even by Xena's acute hearing did she say, "You knew they'd find us."
"Of course, I'm an Amazon."
"Creepy powers can be very useful." Gorgo declared mildly.
"Xena!" one of the members of the watch thumped into the inn, gasping a bit. "Some sort of a delegation from that army."
The delegation contained four obviously frightened lieutenants, one skeptical general, and two regular foot warriors, who were taking care the leaders stayed in front of them. For her part, Xena dropped easily into feral, gorgeous, dangerous mode. "Who have we here... six fools and one person with guts."
One of the lieutenants... he had lost the straw draw, stepped forward, and began to speak in a quavery voice. "Hello, great War God... dess, we have come to beg your mercy..."
"Beg?!" Xena was incredulous. "Since when does a warrior beg?"
"Since we tried to whomp on the war god?" Theseion suggested. Kyanaegis nearly laughed in spite of herself. The man should have been a comic.
"Ah." Xena took a deep breath. Attitude was everything. "I see." She leapt down from the pallisade, and walked slowly and arrogantly around the group. Observing the sweating men and the deeply unuimpressed woman. "Well, you know, I am more than a little irritated." She pressed the tip of one of her long boot daggers against the middle of one fellow's forehead. "But I can be persuaded to be kind." Stepping back. "You can go away. And stay away from one of my favourite places. Oh, and you might want to pay Athena a bit of grovelling time. She gets angry when Athenians get massacred, even now when they don't worship her much." The little group just stood there. A diabolical smile curled Xena's lips. Gabrielle always ran like Tartarus when she saw it. The delegation was unaware that this was the wisest course. Three quick, deft movements, and the luckless Anakreon's trousers dropped around his ankles. Luckily his shirt was long enough, and he wore some kind of breeches. Too much information could have spoiled the effect. "Aren't you leaving?" The men needed no futher hints, but Kyanaegis hung back a moment longer, gazing at Xena intently.
"You are not a Goddess." she declared. "When I convince them of that, I will bring my army here and we wil annihalate this place, heedless of the cost."
"We'll see." Xena answered. Then her small dark opponent walked away.
The Amphipolitans were starting to celebrate as she vaulted back over the wall. "Hey!" she bellowed, gathering their attention. "We're not out of the woods yet. The general doesn't believe what her men do. When she's taken care of, and her army is marching away, then, we can celebrate." This drew some unhappy complaints, but the villagers were practical people at root. So they returned to their original tasks, and determined to have the biggest party they could stand as soon as the mess was cleared up. "Gorgo?"
"Those creepy powers of yours?"
"At your service, of course."
"This plan involves disguises, doesn't it?"
"Yeah, but this time you get to be in drag if you want. Otherwise the first thing Kyanaegis is liable to try is take you hostage. We want to avoid having a fight outright..."
"Me? In drag? no, no, no..."
"It's official. I have lost my mind." Gabrielle stard morosely at her reflection. She looked sort of like a skinny, bearded version of Iolaus, and she found herself torn between giggling hysterically or just pretending she had not looked at herself in the mirror after all.
"Well love, you look cute, but I'm really glad you're a woman." Xena capped the statement with a lurid wink and a sexy smile. She was wearing black leather... a tunic and these gorgeous leather pants. Every now and again she'd give her hips a bit of a sway, symptomatic of her shuffling her feet. The motion came very close to undoing the bard's resolve and forcing her to drag the warrior off to the nearest place providing nominal privacy.
"You're gonna kill me." groaned Gabrielle, trying very hard not to think too much about anything remotely associated with things below the waist. This proved unhelpful, as she found herself staring at her partner's cleavage instead.
"Nah... at least, not thast kind of death." Xena smirked.
"What?" the bard admitted it to herself. Her brain had completely stopped working.
"Tch." Xena walked off to take up her position in the redecorated temple of Ares. A skillfully placed black cloth hanging now hid the smooth black altar. Disturbing it seemed improper somehow.
She was halfway out the door before a quick hand gave her a solid pinch on the butt. "Gabrielle!" she scolded, but not too seriously. The bard merely looked insufferably pleased with herself.
"I tell you she is NOT a Goddess!" roared Kyanaegis. Her army was disintegrating into factions. Her plans were disintegrating around her, and she seemed powerless to stop it. "I tell you, she should have to prove that is what she is! We should NOT just accept her at face value." Angry men shouted back at her. They were convinced. They didn't want to hear doubts. The hostile energy began to rise, and now Kyanaegis could see she had no means to manipulate this situation to her benefit any longer.
"Wait!" Theseios, of all people, again. "I sent a few scouts to try to see what was going on. The Amphipolitans are having some sort of celebration that Xena will preside over. Why don't we just send a delegation to the party. Then we'll see one way or the other."
"A trick." grated Kyanaegis. "You'll see."
Gabrielle tried to take a deep breath, but her fake moustache tickled her nose instead, and she sneezed. "I am never writing this in a scroll. Forget it."
"Why not? This is great." Xena grinned, leaning back in a big armed chair from the inn draped in some tacky fabric the local cloth merchant had never been able to sell. The background was red, and it had a pattern of heavy gold swirly things. So over the top it was perfect. The warrior had slung one leg over the arm over her throne, and was eating grapes from a bowl between herself and the bard.
"Fake facial hair is not great!" burst out Gabrielle. Xena shrugged a bit. The whole situation had become so damnably surreal, she was having trouble finding a ball of nervousness somewhere. Then again, she didn't usually pick over grapes with quite this much attention, so maybe she was nervous. The bars of light had finally changed from bright white to deep yellowish-red.
"Time for the show." Xena smiled faintly.
"Break a leg." Gabrielle replied.
"Gods, I hope not. I only just got the other one to stop bothering me."
Gorgo took a deep breath, and shut her eyes for a moment. Centring herself. Mistakes couldn't be quite covered up, this time around. She turned, and watched with some amusement as four burly Amphipolitans... a gender balanced group as it happened, carried Xena out of the temple on her makeshift throne. The chair legs were lashed to two poles, so the job wasn't too onerous. The bearers were actually rather enjoying themselves, and altogether things looked surprisingly real. Gabrielle fell into step beside her, and they walked on either side of Xena. "You sure you can breathe shallow enough to bring your part off?" Gorgo ased the bard quietly.
"Have you ever worn breast bindings, Gorgo?" Gabrielle asked.
"Not the type you're wearing now." Gorgo replied honestly.
"Trust me, I'm breathing so shallow it's a miracle my face isn't blue."
The bearers set Xena down on a little dais set up just for the occasion, and stood respectfully to either side, but removed slightly from where Gorgo and Gabrielle flanked her.
Ultimately the Amhpipolitans had gotten to have a bit of a party after all, but since it was just for appearances Xena had had to insist everyone stuck to non-alchoholic drinks. When messing with pretending to be a deity, it was probably safer for everyone involved to have their wits about them. Such as they were, Xena thought to herself wryly as one over enthusiastic fellow accidentally whacked himself up the head with a standard he was supposed to hold up. The thing was top heavy, but he had been determined Xena's real banner should be hung from it, even if the pole did have to be several lashed together broomsticks. A faint crash emanated from one side of the enclosure the local musicians were going to to play in. Luckily this was from the drum set, and they were meant to beat on anyway. "Okay, places everbody!" hollered one of the elders. One of the musicians began inflating his bagpipe, drowning out everyone within sight with the racket. The thing was mercilessly out of tune, rather astonishing for such an instrument. Finally, the chaos began to look vaguely controlled. Less like an explosion and more like a landslide. Gabrielle bit her lip. Not a terribly encouraging metaphor, now that she had thought of it.
It didn't take long before a small group of scrubbed observers arrived from Kyanaegis' army... well, it's various factions. Kyanaegis herself had come fully armed, clearly determined to fight. She was shaking something within one lightly balled fist, and soon it became clear the something was a pair of dice.
A small group had gathered around Xena, apparently arguing with her. "Well, I tell you, I don't believe any of it." Gorgo, preparing for the first dramatic demonstration. This one would let her loose to freely arrange the rest of the masquerade. She had been alittle surprised at Xena's willingness to stick to a plan that was bound to make her at least appear vicious again. Seemed she honestly felt the potential loss for her was offset by the potential for protecting Amphipolis without a fight, and breaking up one of the most dangerous non-allied armies in Greece.
"Will we be moving on to the oneallied to city-dstates next?" Gorgo had asked curiously. Why not?
"Best not to push our luck." Xena had answered. "Today." The Amazon had grinned. The wheels were turning a bit.
"You don't beliveve a word? So little faith." Xena drawled. Barring the slurring, she was immitatioing the rhythm of a punch drunk ex-boxer from Themiskyra perfectly.
"You've hardly demonstrated your so called divinity. You could do all those obnoxious flips and things before." Gorgo waved a hand dismissively.
"Seems you have some doubters after all, Xena." sneered Kyanaegis. She'd bring this woman down a peg yet. The humbling if the Warrior Princess was overdue.
"Everyone has those." Xena replied indifferently, as Gorgo keeled over. "Clear her away, would you? An unconscious body doesn't help the the mood." She gave the skinny, bearded man on her left a poke. The man glared at her and turned to call for someone else to do it. "No, you do it." He stopped and glanced back. "Now."
"Okay, okay... you don't need to get your breeches in a wad over it." He stomped around the front of the throne, and glared at the supine Amazon. "Couldn't of gone over there and croaked. Nope, had to stand there and do it. You can't convince me you didn't clue into what was happening..." Bending at the waist, he grabbed the Amazon's ankles, and heaved. "Doof!"
For several moments Gabrielle stood very still, unsure just what she had done to her back. Slowly she straightened. Okay, movement was still possible, life was good. Luckily Gorgo had placed her head on op of one arm, or the road rash would be very ugly. First the bard triied to back away and drag the Amazon with her. She heaved until her face turned bright red.
"Patience is NOT one of my virtues." Xena declared dangerously, although the danger came more from Kyanaaegis than her. Correctly interpreting the warning, Gabrielle turned and faced forward, then heaved. This time she managed to get Gorgo sliding along, and dragged her off. Momentarily out of sight, Gorgo half sat up, spitting the dirt that had bounced into her face.
"Such aplomb." she told the bard crossly. Then she slid through the shadows and placed herself under the cloth at the back of Xena's armchair, peaking out through a hole in the fabric so she could see what was going on and direct things accordingly. It was getting pretty dark. "Xena," she breathed, on the very threshold of hearing, knowing full well the warrior would hear it perfectly. Call for torches." The torches were brought out and placed. Helpful Amphipolitans were about to the light them when Gorgo hissed, "Trick number one."
"No." called Xena, her tone regal and composed. "Relax. Enjoy the food." She made a waving gesture, feeling ridiculous but trusting Gorgo to get the timing right. The torches burst into flame in perfect unision, blue and noisy in the near silence. People were looking more than a little overawed.
"Damn, you can actually do that sort of stuff?" blurted one of the women, who despite knowing the plan, couldn't see Gorgo to make the connection. The warrior refrained from answering, and smiled enigmatically instead. For her part, Gorgo was staring opn mouthed at the torches. She had lit them, true enough... but where was the blue flame from? What the furk did they soak the torches in in this town?
"Oh, now, that was trite." Kyanaegis was completely unimpressed, the look of contempt on her face growing even more emphatic.
"Keep on like that and your face is gonna stay that way." Gabrielle piped up, her wfalse whiskers bobbing. Her partner snickered.
"Surely your bedslave can come up with better comebacks than this pap." the distinct gap between Xena and most other people couldn't be a coincidence. Kyanaegis drew her sword. How unfortunate the woman was too complacent, and too vulnerable to prevent a determined warrior from taking a piece out of her. Being seated on a throne had its drawbacks.
Gorgo took a deep breath. This was one of her favourite tricks. She waited, alarmingly, until the swing had to look close to impacting something important, though it would still be half an armlength away.
Kyanaegis' blow literally seemed to bounce off, and the sudden redirection of her momentum threw the sword from her hand. More than a few people, including those from her army, laughed. She couldn't believe her eyes. Was this crap true? No... it had to be a trick. What esle could she try... Theseios preempted her. He had a blind belief in the various divine beings Greece was plagued with, his general reflected. And powerful doubts concerning everyone else. One day she had sarcastically asked him if he doubted his own existence one day after a few to many questions.
"I believe you're the new war Goddess," he declared in a tone so resembling virtuousness Xena felt sure he was joking. "My eye... took a bad hit a few winters back, and I can't see out of it. Think you could, you know... heal it?"
Behind the armchair, Gorgo made a choking sound. "I can't do that."
"Oh, crap." the bard hissed succinctly. So much for the plan.
"Then the bard can come out and tell us all about how you became a g... divinity." Theseios smiled brightly. Easy. This was gonna be so cool. He could hardly wait. Xena had agood reputation as a war leader, barring the lapse into goody two shoes crap. She had just killed somebody off though, so chances were...
Xena sat absolutely still. This was really bad. Gorgo couldn't do it, and she couldn't do it, and things were about to become worse. 'Figures.' she thought in disgust. 'It would be someone who doesn't need convincing to screw it all up.'
Standing beneath a tree some distance away was the image of the mysterious trapped person. "Come on Xena, you've talked yourself into managing to do everything else." she said softly. All the same, they crossed their fingers. Maybe her powers were just in the sort of league Hercules' were. Lots of strength, solid intelligence, better than normal healing abilities. Here was sincerely hoped not. Trapped in stone, mainly powerless, there was no way to stack the deck.
The warrior took a deep breath. Well, maybe this guy's faith could do what she couldn't anyway. Faith healing did sometimes work... not for this but. 'Time's up.' she muttered, seeing the man's smile begin to fall a little, and Kyanaegis' expression grow triumphant.
"Come closer." Theseios shuffled forward, to just close enough Xena could have poked him in the gut with her toe. If she slid down on her throne and reached. "Closer." He inched just a bit further. "Come on. Come on. I don't bite under these conditions, and I'm getting bored." he immediately got close enough to almost thump his chest into her legs. Why was a claim of fundamental childishness such a motivation? Xena wondered. "Okay. Shut your eyes." Then, a bit at a loss what else to do, she leaned forward and rested her hand on the top of his head for a moment. She felt bad for him. Warlording was ultimately such a waste of time. She knew that all too well. Finally she sat back. "Okay." Shifting one foot and her entire upper body a bit. A fight might be in order.
In the silence, the cliche bit of hay could have been heard dropping. Theseios opened his eyes. He blinked, an act taking some effort because his es were nearly popping out of his head. He covered first one eye, then the other. "Hey!" he blurted. "You, she, I ... wait, I mean..." he glanced at Kyanaegis. What was she grinning about? he wondered. She was gonna be mad.
"You did it! I can see! This is so cool. Oh wow, wait till I tell the guys..." he burbled. He stopped. "Wait, Ares never did nice stuff. He'd poke your other eye out."
Gorgo had quickly slipped out the back of the armchair again, and Gabrielle had gone into bard mode, so to speak, trying to make her voice as deep and gruff as possible. "Well, you could have avoided the road rash if you hadn't been so rude..."
"No unnecessary deaths." Xena declared blandly, flashing a look at Gorgo. "Anyway, that's enough... I have better things to do." she snapped her fingers, imagining conjuring up a mug of wine the way she'd seen gods do... and almost dropped the cup she managed to produce into her lap. What was up with this? "The only one the bard is performing tonight is me." an imperious gesture to the throne bearers, she was on her way back to the temple, and the Amphipolitans started cracking out just a bit of real liquor.
"You see, you were wrong." Theseios smiled triumphantly. "Who's gonna lead the army now?"
Kyanaegis would have backhanded him. But what was the point. She stalked back to camp, her chattering ex-minions trailing behind, working there story into a full fledged means of convincing everyone else to buy them drinks. Half the men had wandered away, having picked up a word of a gold shipment coming through Drama. The rest seemed disinclined to fight, or maintain any cohesion. They were willing and eager to listen to Theseios, however. "Perhaps you'll lead. For awhile. Trouble is, cats and the fortunate have nine lives. And you do not." Disappearing into the darkness before he could answer, she stopped by the command tent, collecting the few things she cared to have, then found her horse.
An owl watched the great grand daughter of Dike ride away, rattling her dice in one hand. Luck was a peculiar thing. It came and went. More often then not, you had to follow it.
"What the Tartarus was that?" hissed Gabrielle, yanking off her false whiskers. "Ow!"
"You're asking me? I don't know! I did not do that."
"Yes you did." Gorgo contradicted unhelpfully. "You made the torch flames blue too, I checked to see what they had for fuel. Regular oil. They would have been yellow, otherwise."
"I did not do that!" Xena repeated a little desperately.
"You had to have done, there's no other explanation. And yes you did heal that man, I felt the energy. And made the cup of wine you're holding too."
"Would you stop it! You're freaking me out. I am not a Goddess."
"No, but you're a half Goddess with some snazzy powers. Get used to it!" snapped Gorgo. "You'll just have to get over your cold feet about it. Having powers isn't creepy so much as a pain sometimes. You're a hero type. Do something heroish with 'em." she stomped off, feeling quite peevish.
"This is nuts. There has to be a way to get rid of these things." Xena muttered.
"Do you really want to? I mean, Gorgo does have a point." her partner suggested mildly. There was one power she was quite interested in testing out.
"Yes!" shouted Xena. She stopped. "I'm sorry, I didn't mean to yell at you. Things are crazy and hard enough. At this point in my life, I don't even know if I could learn to control these powers properly. Tonight things went okay. What if the next time someone gets hurt because I can't control what's happening?"
Gabrielle curled her fingers around one of Xena's chilled hands. "You're really scared about this."
"Yeah." the warrior sighed.
"Okay." the bard declared crisply. Rounded blue eyes. "Let's see if we can get you returned to your version of ordinariness." her face crinkled into her charming grin.
"You mean it?" Xena asked a bit plaintively. If the bard was going to wind up feeling she'd failed by wanting to put aside these powers that had manifested so suddenly... well, she'd take the risk to avoid that. The gods knew, failures Xena already had in regards to Gabrielle. be damned if she'd knowingly add another.
"Yeah. And no, I don't think you're a failure for not wanting them." they made their way to the inn. "Maybe it was a sort of fluke, maybe you... picked up some energy from the temple?"
The warrior paused, and glanced at the torches on either side of the temple doors. She tried concentrating on them, seeing if she could light them and turn them green. It was nonsense, of course. The stupid things lit up, burning green with what seemed like merry defiance. "Oh." groaned Xena.
"If you can still do that sort of thing tomorrow morning, we'll figure out who to go to. And then we'll keep testing on the trip thee. Maybe the powers will wear off." Gabrielle pointed out reasonably.
"I hope you're right."
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