Path of Thorns

Part X

“Okay, this is where we are.” Xena drew a few lines in the sand, then pointed to a spot. “The quickest route to the other side is over this hill here. However, there are too many rocks, so the horses and chariots will have to go around. She pointed the stick she was holding at the lieutenant. “I want you to lead the infantry over the hill. I will lead the cavalry and chariots around. We will meet up at the bottom of the hill, before the moon reaches its zenith. All clear?”
The men around her nodded.
“Once we get to the other side, it’s just a hundred miles or so to Thermopylae. We should be there two candlemarks before dawn. This will give the men some time to rest before the battle.” Xena continued on. “I want to….”

A loud crack sounded suddenly from nearby, followed by many men yelling. Xena drew her sword, hastily rushing closer, pushing a few men aside to come to the source of the problem. “What the Hades is…?”

She stopped then, as she saw two men trying very hard to restrain a black stallion, who was bucking and rearing. “Knocked over three fellows, ma’am.” One of the men managed to say, as he struggled with the horse’s halter. “Strong one, this is.”
Xena exhaled, then took a step closer, reaching out a hand and touching the horse’s head. As if by magic the stallion settled down. “Chilon, you stupid thing.”
The two men holding onto the stallion’s halter shared an impressed look, then both let go, allowing the horse to take a few steps forward and bump his nose up against Xena’s abdomen.
“Stop that,” she scolded him after which he just did it again, making the soldiers laugh. She grabbed onto his halter, tugging him along after her. The stallion followed her obediently.

She led him to a grassy spot a little bit away from the waiting soldiers. Chilon bent his long neck and pulled a patch of grass loose, chewing on it contentedly. Xena crossed her arms, looking at him sternly. “You didn’t hurt the stable girl, did you?”
The stallion gazed at her.
“I taught you better manners than this. I taught you to listen to me.”
Chilon chewed on his grass some more, then snorted, shaking his head a little.

Xena laughed, in spite of herself. She took a step closer, affectionately rubbing his dark head. “Stubborn thing.” She wrapped her arms around his strong neck, leaning against him. “It would be better for you if you stayed away from me.” Chilon nibbled her belt. Xena smiled, drawing in a breath of dust and horse. It was familiar and soothing and she closed her eyes, laying her ear against the stallion’s neck and listening to him breathe.

“General?” Her lieutenant’s voice drifted out to her. “Are you ready to depart?”
Xena squared her shoulders. She turned her face, to look into one of Chilon’s dark brown eyes. “Are you?” The stallion leaned closer, nuzzling her hand. Xena placed a kiss on his fur, then looped the rope of the halter over his neck, before she pushed herself up and seating herself on his bare back. Chilon neighed happily, then set off, trotting back towards the awaiting soldiers.

Odilon carefully poured the steaming green liquid into a cup, then moved over to the bedside again. He held the steaming mug under Gabrielle’s nose, allowing the fumes to circle around her face. “Let’s end this… shall we?”

The door suddenly burst open and Odilon looked up to see Gabrielle’s redhead friend filling the doorway. Her eyes searched the room, then settled on him kneeling at Gabrielle’s side. “Get away from her!” She yelled, then stormed closer. Odilon blinked, then hastily placed the cup at the bedside table and turned back around to face her.

A fist impacted with his face harshly and he stumbled back. “Whoa, okay, hold it!” He managed to duck under another swing from the raging woman and backed away. “Wait up now! I…” He gurgled as a hand grabbed onto the back of his tunic and lifted him up. He managed to glance over his shoulder to see blue eyes, remarkably like Xena’s, narrowed at him.
“What were you trying to do to her?!” Thalia snapped at him. “If you hurt one hair on her head, I swear I’m gonna….”

A groan sounded from behind her and Thalia spun around to see Gabrielle sit up in the bed, looking around groggily. “Thal?” Gabrielle reached for her head, which was clearly aching. “Wha…” She looked around and her eyes fell on the empty mug standing at the bedside. She drew in a sharp breath, as memory kicked in. “Xena! Where is she?”
“Gone!” Odilon managed to croak, between gasps of air. “Need to hurry.”
“What the Hades happened?” Thalia inquired, steadying Gabrielle as the warrior tried to get up from the bed. “I walk in here and I see you there lying unconscious and this guy leaning over you with a cup of nasty looking green stuff.”

Gabrielle glanced at her, then at Odilon, then at the steaming cup. She tentatively reached out and lifted it, sniffing. She lifted an eyebrow, then looked back over at Odilon. “Put him down.”
Toris frowned. “But….”
“Put him down,” Gabrielle repeated, walking over as Odilon was placed back to his feet. The spy shot Toris a vile look, rubbing his soar neck. Then he faced forward again, meeting Gabrielle’s eyes as the warrior stopped before him. She placed a hand on the bedpost to hold herself upright, still a little dizzy.

They stared at each other a moment, Gabrielle with a good dose of suspicion. “How long was I supposed to sleep?” The warrior finally asked.
Odilon shrugged a little. “Not sure what dosage she used, but… the maximum is about twenty candlemarks.”
“How long has it been?”
“About four,” the spy replied. “It took me a little while to find the right root. I’m not that good of a healer. I just know the basics.” He motioned towards the hand she had leaning against the bed. “You’re going to feel a little groggy, because I had to pull you out of it fast. Won’t last long though.”

Gabrielle studied him. “Why?”
Odilon smirked. “Well…. I’m still not convinced about you not being a rebel assassin, but…. Xena seems quite intent on getting herself killed anyway. So I have little to lose.”
Gabrielle stared at him a moment longer, then she exhaled, covering her eyes with a hand. “There’s a ship in the harbor. She expects me to run.”
“You going to?”
Gabrielle snorted. “No.” She let go of the bedpost and managed to make her way over to a chair, on which she’d laid out her armor. She reached for a gauntlet, securing it on her lower arm. “I am going to get my horse, ride north, find Xena, and kick her butt for doing this.”

Thalia glanced from Gabrielle to Odilon and back. “Wait…. I’m lost here…. You saying that Xena drugged you? And he saved you?”
Gabrielle grimaced. “Wouldn’t call it saving, per see.”
“I would,” Odilon smirked.
“She was trying to protect you,” Toris mumbled, pensively. “Keep you away from the battle.”
Odilon nodded. “She thinks it’s hopeless” A shrug. “And she may not be wrong. I’ve seen the Persian forces. There’s a lot of them.”

“She’s an idiot,” Gabrielle grumbled, reaching for a set of daggers and tucking them in her boots. “A stupid, overprotective idiot.” The warrior finished dressing and was now wearing a set of dark red leathers, covered in several bits of silver armor. She grabbed for her sword, then headed for the door. The dizziness was starting to wear off.
Odilon fell into pace behind her. “I got your horse saddled up. It’s waiting in the courtyard.”
“How far have the Persians gotten?”
“The reports indicated that they will reach Thermopylae by midnight,” Odilon informed her. “Considering the number of troops, they’ll most likely attack by daylight. So that would be….”
“… way too soon,” Gabrielle finished, then cursed. “Damn it. Damn it, damn it, I should’ve seen this. She was acting weird and… I should have known.”
“You should have known that your lover would drug you and then run off by herself to go get killed?” Odilon muttered from behind her. “Wow…. Some great relationship you guys have.”
“Shut it,” Gabrielle snapped at him.

“Gab, wait up!” Thalia came running up to her, grabbing onto her arm. “Hold it for a moment!”
Gabrielle turned around, facing her friend.
Thalia drew in a breath. “Look, I….” She bit her lip. “I’m not entirely sure yet what’s going on, but…. Xena seems to have taken you out, so you wouldn’t go with her and die. Now, me and her don’t generally see eye to eye, but…. You not dying sounds very good to me.”
Gabrielle managed a smile, reaching out and grabbing onto her friend’s shoulder. “Thal…. I have to go after her.”
“She clearly doesn’t want you to. And…. And from the sound of it, you’ll be too late.”
“I have to try,” Gabrielle told her.
“Because….” A breath. “Because I love her. And I haven’t gotten a chance to tell her that yet.”
Thalia blinked at her. “Oh….”

“Yeah.” Gabrielle managed a small smile, then she touched her friend’s cheek. “Look, Thal, that ship is laying in the harbor with food, supplies…. I can give you a seal ring. You can get away from here. Go get the Amazons and take them too. Go someplace safe, until this is over with.”
“My ship is still waiting in the harbor too,” Toris added, stopping beside Thalia. “If there’s a lot of people, I could….”

“No,” Thalia cut him off, then turned back to Gabrielle. “You think I’m just gonna let you go off and fight a few thousand Persians while I sail off? What are you, nuts?”
Gabrielle managed a wry grin. “Figured I’d give it a shot.”
“I…” Thalia tried to sort through her options fast. “I’ll get Eph. She’s left to meet up with the Amazons outside the city walls. And I’ll alert the council as to what’s going on.”
Gabrielle nodded. “Go find my sister and Perdicas,” She pleaded. “She’s pregnant. Make sure she’s safe.” She glanced over to where Odilon was standing at the palace doors, waving at her to hurry. “I need to go now.”
“I know,” Thalia nodded, then wrapped her arms around Gabrielle and hugged her. “I’ll be right behind you.” A breath. “Please, please be careful.”
“You too,” Gabrielle murmured back, hugging her close and then regretfully letting go. She turned and jogged towards the door which Odilon was holding open for her,

There was a call from the trees right above her. Xena glanced up, to see a guard squatting on the branches, looking back down at her. The call was passed on by more and more guard posts, and by the time Xena could see the camp in the distance, it was buzzing with activity in preparation of her arrival. The men around her, though they were tired from the fast night march, squared their shoulders and walked a bit straighter, proud to be entering the camp at her side.

The path into the camp was lined with torches. The flames flickered in the wind, reflecting off her golden armor. People stepped aside and she rode in between a double line of soldiers, which saluted her as she passed.

The camp seemed to be properly set up, with a good amount of tents to cover both people and weaponry from the drizzle that had started. It covered a large hillside. To her right, in the distance, loomed the hills and the narrow pass of Thermopylae.

Xena pulled Chilon back as she spotted Dorian walking towards her. She slid off Chilon’s back. “Dorian,” she acknowledged his presence. “How are you?”
“Happy to see you, General,” Dorian grinned at her and raised his voice a little. “And looking forward to teaching these Persian dogs a lesson.”
“That’s the spirit,” Xena patted him on the shoulder amicably, then turned and waved a hand at Cleopatra, who had halted behind her and was now gracefully descending from the chariot. “I don’t believe you’ve met Cleopatra, Queen of the Nile and my valued ally.”
“Highness,” Dorian bowed deeply, which Cleopatra clearly approved off. “Honored to have you here.”

Xena, meanwhile had turned back to the men and women who were now one by one filtering into the camp. “Ladies and gentlemen, it’s been a pleasure marching with you.” The soldiers beamed at her proudly and some yelled out her name. “Get some food, and some rest. Tomorrow the fun stuff starts.” More yells and scanting of her name, to which the soldiers who had already been stationed at Thermopylae joined in wholeheartedly.

Xena turned her back on them though, motioning for Dorian to follow her. “I want a status report in my tent in a quarter of a candlemark. Make sure everybody with information is there. I want to make this quick.”
Dorian nodded, then jogged off.

Xena pulled aside the flap of the largest tent, correctly assuming it was hers. There were candles burning inside. A servant was ordering the sheets on the bed. Xena managed a smile for her, then motioned towards the exit. The girl bowed and hastily left.

Cleopatra entered the tent behind her. She glanced around at the double bed, the large desk and the table assorted with various types of food. “Ah…” She picked up an apple, examining its deep red color. “It is still good to be the Queen, is it not?”
Xena darted her a smirk over her shoulder, reaching for a towel and rubbing it over her face to clean off the drops of rain. “Sometimes it’s better than others.”
“If you have to fight a war, you should do it in style,” Cleopatra countered, walking over and lying down onto the bed on her side. She took a bite of her apple as she studied Xena rummaging around. “I remember the armor,” she commented casually. “Jappa, no?”
“Yeah,” Xena turned around to look at her. The regent’s dark eyes watched her intently, then she held out her apple. The Empress hesitated a moment, then walked over and settled down on the side of the bed, bending her head and taking a bite out of the bit of fruit without bothering to take it from Cleopatra. “Good memory. I only wore it that once.”
The regent grinned. “The armor is… very memorable,” Cleopatra continued sweetly. She reached out with her free hand, tracing a finger over the Empress’ thigh. “It was a good battle. We made a good team, then.”
“We did,” Xena murmured softly, watching the finger move down to her knee and then back up again.
Cleopatra studied her a moment longer, then she pushed herself up a little, moving even closer to the Empress and kissing her.

A moment, then Cleopatra backed away again, looking somewhat dismayed at the lack of response. “You are no fun anymore.”
Xena managed a chuckle, looking down at her hands. “Sorry.”
“No, no…” Cleopatra waved her off, returning her attention to the apple. “You are in love. I remember from the last time. It was the same.”
Xena folded her fingers together, her thumb absently caressing her index finger. “Was it?”
“Yes,” the Egyptian said, then corrected herself. “No. This time, it is worse. And she is more obnoxious.” A breath as Cleopatra rolled over onto her back, staring at the top of the tent. “What did you see in her, anyway?”
Xena glanced at her, then focused back on her folded hands. “A future.”

Gabrielle tossed a look over her shoulder at Odilon, the wind rushing past her ears as Argo raced on. “What?!”
“Break!” Odilon repeated. “My horse is about to keel over!”

Gabrielle looked at his horse, which was breathing heavily. She patted Argo’s neck, which was quite sweaty.

She leaned back in the saddle, and Argo instantly slowed down to a trot. Odilon caught up with her. Gabrielle glanced at him, then faced forward with a smirk. “Looks like it’s not just the horse keeling over.”
The spy rolled his eyes. “Hey, this is the third time I’m traveling this road in a few days. And it’s not any more interesting by moonlight, I gotta tell you.

There was a small creak nearby the road and Argo sauntered towards it, bending her head and drinking the liquid greadily. Gabrielle swung herself off the horse’s back, leaning down and scooping some of the water up herself.

Odilon followed her example, splashing some water into his face in an attempt to wake himself up some.

Gabrielle had finished refreshing herself, and was restlessly pacing from Argo to a nearby tree and back. She looked up to see the sky in the east and could see the dark sky was slowly turning a somewhat lighter shade of blue. She took a few more paces, hesitated, then stepped up next to Argo, whispering something in the horse’s ear. She turned and took of running.
“Hey!” Odilon called after her. When it appeared she wasn’t stopping, he got up and tied the reigns of his horse to Argo’s saddle, before setting in pursuit.

“Hey! Wait!” He finally managed to catch up to Gabrielle, trying to catch his breath as he slowed a little to match her pace. “Wh…” A breath. “Why are we running?”
“Cause the horses are tired.”
“Where as we are just full of energy,” Odilon muttered sarcastically.
“I can’t just…. Sit and wait.” Gabrielle ran a hand through her sweaty hair.
“The horses are going to catch up to us,” the spy tried some logic.
“They won’t have to carry us so they’ll be lighter and faster,” Gabrielle countered.
“That’ll just buy us… a few moments at most.”
Green eyes turned to him. “What if that’s all it takes?”
Odilon glanced at her another moment, then tossed up a hand. “Okay. You win.”

They continued on for a few more moments in some form of companionable silence. Then Odilon spoke up. “So… You love her, huh?”
“I’m running after her in the middle of the night to save her from a huge Persian army after she drugged me to stay behind,” Gabrielle muttered. “Insanity is the first phase, if I remember correctly.”
Odilon chuckled, shaking his head a little. “You know something?”
“I can’t figure you out,” Odilon admitted.
Gabrielle tried to repress a smirk. “I told Xena the same thing.”
“Oh, Xena is easy to figure out.”
A blond eyebrow rose at him. “Really?”
“Yes,” Odilon stated firmly. “I mean, there’s a whole boatload of honor and warrior crap, but… It’s all about love and betrayal, really.” He watched the sand drift up under his boots. “She loved her family and she tried her hardest to protect them, but then her brother dies and her mom gives up on her. She runs off and ends up with Caesar, who she kinda likes. He betrays her. Boreas, that whole mess with her son, some annoying little kid in Jappa…. With Xena it all spells endless heartaches and heads on sticks.”

A moment of silence as Gabrielle digested this. “You still think I want to hurt her?”
Odilon considered this a moment, then shrugged. “I make use of the one percent rule. If there’s even the tiniest of chances, something might hurt Xena…. I take it out.”
“To protect her?” The warrior murmured. “Even if it might be unnecessary?”
“Yep.” Odilon hopped over a protruding rock.
“That’s a stupid rule.”
“It’s efficient,” the spy countered easily. “It’s better to take one out too many and have that on my conscience, then… the alternative.”
Gabrielle glanced up at him, thoughtfully for a moment, then focused back on the road in front of her.

“Their forces are stationed here, here and here,” the scout leader pointed to three places on the map. “They have archers lined up here.” He pointed to an area at their end of the pass.
“Protected?” Xena asked, studying the lines.
“Yes, by spearmen with large shields.”
“Hmm,” Xena drummed her fingers on the desk, forgetting about her idea to ambush the archers. “What about catapults? Battering rams?”
“They have some,” a spy, who had just returned from the inside of the camp informed her. “But they are large and slow. They can only take them through the pass once this side is secured.”
“I’ve been told they have Greek fire.”

The inhabitants of the tent looked up at her in surprise. “Greek fire, General?” Dorian frowned his brows in concern. “That’s illegal to own.”
“For some reason I don’t think Dahak is too picky when it comes to the law,” Xena muttered.
“I did not see Greek fire,” the spy said, thoughtfully. “But there was a tent that was being guarded constantly. Set aside from the camp, no torches. Might be it.”
“If they can’t get the catapults through, they’ll tip the arrows,” the Empress stated. “I want our own archers here and here.” She pointed to high positions on either side of the pass. “They can fire at the approaching army from above. Send a cohort of legionnaires up there to protect them. They’ve got metal shields. Greek fire won’t get through.”
Dorian nodded in agreement.
“The food and supplies were brought in in wooden barrels, right?”
“Yes,” Her second in command confirmed.
“I want all the empty ones brought up here.” She drew a line at the top of the hill. “Form a barrier.”
“A wooden barrier?” Cleopatra questioned from behind her. “Will they not try to burn it down?”
Xena darted a grin over her shoulder. “I’m counting on it.”

Thalia looked around through the melee of people to see Ephiny making her way towards her. “You ready!”
“I was born ready,” Ephiny flashed her a grin, then sobered. “This won’t be easy, like that row with Alti, right?”
Thalia managed a wry chuckle. “Probably not.”
“Told the girls as much,” the Amazon Queen said. “Been a while since we’ve done war. But… they’re looking forward to it. Centaurs too.” She reached out and squeezed her friend’s shoulder. “You doing okay?”
Thalia drew in a breath and released it. “I’m worried about Gab.”
“She’ll be okay,” Ephiny reassured her. “She just needs to hang on till I get there and save her butt.”
Thalia managed a smile for her friend, then motioned her head towards the harbor. “I organized two ships, they’re waiting nearby. Thermopylae is near the sea, we can go on land nearby and ride the last bit.”
“Amazons generally don’t like water much, but… I guess it’s the best way.” Ephiny agreed. “I’ll go marshal the troops and head them out to the harbor.”

Thalia watched her leave, then turned around to finish her conversation with some of her friends from the former-rebellion. She stopped as Toris came walking up to her. “Hey,” she smiled at him.
“Hi,” he smiled back, a little nervously. “I uhm… Your ships are ready. I know the captain on the first one. Good fellow.”
“Great.” Thalia reached down and picked up a large burlap sack, placing it on the wooden cart standing next to her. “Gimme a hand with this, would you?”
“Sure.” Toris hastily walked over and picked up a wooden crate, filled with loafs of bread. “You uhm… You got this organized quite quickly.”
“Yeah well…” Thalia shoved the sack to the end of the cart. “It helps to know people that know that I know people in high places.”
Toris managed a faint smile. “You are people in high places.”
A snort. “Right.” Thalia finished stacking the last barrel on top of the cart, dusting off her hands. “We’d better get going. It’ll be light soon.” She said, as she headed for the driving box.

“I can’t come with you.”
Thalia stopped, then turned to look at Toris.
He drew in a breath, then released it again. “Look, I like you….” He took a tentative step closer. “I really, really like you. Which hasn’t happened to me in a while. So I really tried, but….” He swallowed. “My sister…. I just… just can’t… I mean, she killed my mother…. I…”

“I understand,” Thalia cut off his stuttering, looking away.
“I’m sorry,” Toris managed. “If it’d been different…”
“No, it’s my fault,” Thalia forced a smile. “It was… silly of me to think…. I mean, I’m going to follow my friend who is following your sister and we’re probably all going to die. You’re too smart of a guy to get in line.”
“If it’d been different…”
“It’s not though, is it?” The redhead managed to look up into his eyes. “I… really, really like you too. Which hasn’t happened to me in a while, either.” She paused a moment, then leaned forward, kissing him on the cheek. “It was nice getting to know you.”
“Yeah,” Toris cleared his throat, watching as she climbed onto the driving box and took the reigns. “You too.”

Iona stared up at the sky, watching as the stars slowly faded as the sky cleared. Next to her, Niobe was snoring softly, clutching at her blanket.

She had barely slept. She’d tried a few times, but her eyes just wouldn’t close. Iona drew in a chilly breath. She sat up a little on one hand and glanced to her right, past Niobe to look at the sea. The white foam drifting in on the waves stood out clearly against the dark waters.

Iona climbed to her feet and headed for the water. The waves rolled in, rushing over her bare feet. They sank away in the mud a little, the sand getting between her toes. She drew in a breath, closing her eyes. “Dad?” She said in little more than a whisper. “I need you to tell me what to do. Like when I was little. I thought I knew, but…. I don’t. I think mom’s in trouble. Because of me. And I…. I want to help her but I don’t know how.” She tipped her head back, looking at the brightest star, which was still visible in the brightening sky. “Help me. Give… Give me a sign or something? Okay? Should… Should I go find her?”

“Watcha doin’?”
Iona turned around to see Aphrodite standing behind her. “…Nothing.”
“Hmm,” the goddess sat down on the sand. “Nothing is a fun thing to do. Though… usually not before dawn.”

Iona hesitated a moment, then walked over and sat down beside the goddess. They sat silently side by side. Aphrodite lifted a hand full of sand, letting it slip from her fingers. The wind picked up the grains and blew then west, back towards the ocean. Aphrodite watched them. “You know my granddaddy invented sand.”
Iona looked up at her. “Really?”
“Yeah,” Aphrodite nodded in confirmation. “Mostly to piss off my grandma. They had some argument or something. She was a titan, so she had really big feet. Kept sinking away in the stuff. Grandpa thought it was hysterical.”
Iona blinked up at her moment, then shook her head. “You have a really weird family.”
The goddess of love chuckled. “Sadly, it’s your family too, kiddo.”
“I guess,” the girl muttered. “But… Dad… Pyrron always said that family was when people who could totally be mad at you, would help you anyway. Because they had to. Because you are part of them.”

Aphrodite leaned back on her hands, looking up at the sky. “Sounds nice.”
“Doesn’t your family protect you?”
A snort. “No.”
“Why not?”
“I guess…” Aphrodite considered her words a moment. “I guess we’ve lived too long to remember where we came from. That we are connected.” A breath. “With us…. It’s just about power. Being the strongest. The best. We fight each other just about every day.” She shook her head a little. “It hasn’t been the same since daddy died.”
Iona dug her fingers in the sand. “Yeah.”
“It gets lonely.”
“Yeah.” Iona repeated again in a soft voice.

Aphrodite frowned, then glanced down at her. “You’re not lonely.”
Iona squared her shoulders. “No, No…. I’ve got mom.”
“And your brother, your sister. Gabrielle.”
”They’re not family.”
“Sure they are,” Aphrodite countered, reseating herself a little so she was facing the girl. “Look, I'm not smart or anything, like my sister. But I know one thing.” She tipped Iona’s head up, forcing her to look at her. “Family is a connection of the heart. It’s not just about blood. I mean, that can be part of it, but… What it’s really about is a connection you feel.” She smiled. “You are just my niece; we’re only connected through my brother, but… You are my family. More than Athena is my family.”

Blue eyes stared into hers, then Iona reached over and hugged the goddess, sniffling a little. “Thanks.”
Athena laughed happily, hugging her back. “Wish the rest of the family was more like you, honey. World would be a better place if could all just get along.”
“Have you talked to them?” Iona sat back, looking at the goddess.
“Tried,” Aphrodite muttered, looking profoundly sad. “But they don’t listen to me. It’s about power with us, remember? And in this world… I

Xena stood in her tent. Alone. Waiting.

She tipped her head up, looking at the sky she could see through the small gap in the center of the tent. The dark skies had brightened and the edges of the thick rain clouds which had remained throughout the night were outlined in a deep red. Blood red.

A dull roar sounded from far away. Human voices united. Xena closed her eyes. The sound of drums picked up. Then a horn sounded nearby, coming from inside her camp. Around her tent she could hear footsteps pick up, orders being yelled.

Xena drew in a breath, then faced forward again, opening her eyes. She picked up the katana, which had been lying on the bed, and sheathed it in the scabbard attached to her back.

Rain drizzled down on her as she pulled aside the flap of the tent and stepped outside. Heads turned to her. Waiting. Trusting.

Xena continued on, to the front edge of the camp, where she had a view of the pass. Drums echoed off the rock and she could see smoke rising up from between the stone walls. At the top of the pass, slightly to her right, a large fire was burning, the flames reaching high up and touching the clouds. The rain didn’t seem to bother it.


Dorian stepped up beside her, tapping his chest in salute.
“Are the archers at their posts?”
Her second-in-command nodded. “All is as you instructed.”
“Excellent.” Xena continued to stare at the pass as the roar of voices become louder and the first line of shields became visible.

She heard the men and women around her gasp and whisper as more and more enemy soldiers came into view, filling the entire pass. The red glow of dawn and the flickering of the torches reflected off their shields and spears. The whispering around her intensified, the eyes of the soldiers clearly worried.

The Empress turned to find Cleopatra dismount from the chariot she’d just ridden in on. “Cleo.” She glanced up at the cloudy sky. “Good morning for a bloodbath. Don’t you agree?”
“Every morning which involves blood is a good morning, according to you,” Cleopatra retorted sternly, but she was repressing a smile.

“True,” Xena agreed, grinning at her. She sobered then. “You know what to do?”
A nod. “Yes. I will wait for your signal.”
“Good girl.”
“Hardly,” Cleopatra countered, then after a moment of hesitation extended her hand. “It has been a pleasure.”
Xena took her hand, kissing the back. “It has been.”
Their eyes held another moment, then Cleopatra turned away, returning to her place beside the charioteer.

Xena returned her gaze forward another moment, staring up at the large fire at the top of the pass. Then she motioned her hand, instructing Chilon to be led forward. The horse was dressed in silver armor, which covered his hindquarters and neck. A bow was attached to one of his sides and a sword to the other. There were several spots where daggers were hidden within her reach. A metal plate covered his forehead, only revealing his eyes.

He was restless, stamping the earth with one of his front hooves. She touched his nose, the soft hairs tickling her palm. One of his brown eyes turned to her. Xena smiled back at him. He calmed down instantly. Xena grabbed onto the saddle and pulled herself up. She adjusted some leather bits, making sure she was properly seated, before looking up. Some soldiers had turned to her now, mostly the veterans. But many still stared at the pass. She could see doubt there now, especially among the younger soldiers.

She let her eyes slide past the rows of men and women. “This place…. Thermopylae… is a place of history. Of legend.” She spoke out, letting her voice carry. Eyes turned away from the pass and to her. “A long time ago, a small group of Spartans fought on this ground where we stand today. They were but few. And they knew the enemy was countless in numbers. Yet they stood.” She moved Chilon forward, pacing past the lines. “They stood here. They fought. And they became legends.” Blue eyes looked out over the soldiers. “They won. They died here, all of them. But they won. Because Greece won.” She unsheathed her katana, pointing it at them. “They look at us now, from Elysium. They look at us and they are afraid.” She paused. “You know why? Because tomorrow, when someone thinks of Thermopylae, they will not remember them. They will remember us!”

Yells went up, soldiers raising their swords and cheering. The enemy seemed forgotten. Thousands of eyes sparkled up at her. Believing.

“This is the moment!” Xena called out over the cheers. “This is the moment when history is made! The moment when you, each and every one of you, are made into legends!”

The voices, united, echoed over the battlefield. Xena lifted her sword above her head and the roar became louder. Spearmen thumped their spears on the ground, swords clattered against metal shields.

A laugh bubbled up and she let it. Her heartbeat picked up, adrenaline pumping through her veins. She turned Chilon around and pushed him into a gallop, racing past the lines. Someone started chanting her name and soon others fell in. She closed her eyes and basked in it.

Chilon slid to a halt in the center of the lines and she spun the stallion around, towards the battlefield. Dorian, who had also mounted, stopped next to her. He looked up at her, her hair blowing wildly in the wind, her eyes brighter than before. “General.” He said, his voice full of adoration.
Xena turned to him, grinning, then extended her hand. “Victory.”
Dorian reached out and clasped her arm. “Victory is ours, General.” He stated firmly. “You have already won.”
“Suck up,” Xena smirked at him, then let go of his hand.
He smiled back. “Been an honor, General.”
“Likewise,” Xena retorted, then reacted in a flash and reached out, her hands closing over the shaft of an arrow. She flanked at it, then back at him. “Guess we’re getting started.”
Dorian tapped his chest in a final salute, then turned his horse around, yelling at the horsemen he had under his command. Xena turned to her right, to find Cleopatra moving off as well, circling behind the lines to the chariots that were hidden from view.

The sound of arrows shifting through the air and she hastily lifted a hand. “Shields!”
Moments later the arrows rained down on them, clattering against the metal shields they fell upon. A few headed her way and Xena swung the katana around, whacking them away from her. “Spears! Up front! Archers, get ready!”
Men and women moved forward around her, taking up position behind the barrier of wooden barrels Xena had set up. Archers moved into position behind them, shielded from the enemy’s fire by the spearmen’s large shields.

A second wave of arrows. Xena heard a few cries of pain as soldiers were hit, but the line of spears remained. “Return fire!” Xena ordered, and moments later arrows flew back towards the Persian forces.

An oily smell reached her nostrils and she nodded a little to herself. “Agathon!”
A lieutenant on horseback came riding up to her. “Ma’am?”
“Keep the cavalry out of the line of fire until my mark.”
“Yes, General,” Agathon nodded, and spun his horse around.
Small dots of fire lit up in the distance, all the way across pass.
“Get ready!” Xena called out over the troops, as Chilon stepped around restlessly. “Ready!”

Soft pangs sounded in the distance as the arrows were released. Countless fiery tips came flying at them, lighting up the sky. Xena judged their paths, then unhooked her chakram and launched it forward, slicing through a few dozen arrows and halting them before they could even get close.

The soldiers lifted their shield and dove under them for protection as the arrows clattered down around them. Most tips were embedded into the ground and extinguished. But some hit flesh or wood and the flames spread greedily. Yells sounded behind her, but Xena ignored them, focusing her eyes on the arrows that had landed in the wooden barrels right at the front. The spearman were backing away some as the Greek fire greedily started to consume the wood.

A roar sounded from up ahead and Xena looked past the fire, to see the first wave of Persian soldiers running forward, out of the pass and towards them.

Several spearmen lifted their shields a little and then brought the ends down hard, cutting through the ropes which had held the barrels in their place on the slope of the hill. As soon as the burning barrels were released they stared rolling down, picking up speed.

The first line of soldiers rushing towards them stopped as they realized what was going on, the men behind them crashing into them. Yells rang out as the first Persians tried to make their way back to the pass, while the others behind them stood, confused as to what was happening.

Xena laughed as the barrels thundered into the group of soldiers, screams of terror ringing out over the battle field as the fire started feeding on their leather armor.

The archers pulled back the arrows they had tipped in the Greek fire and released, sending the greedy flames back where they’d come from. Screams echoed through the pass.

The spearman instantly spread out, creating space between them and allowing the horses to pass.

Xena motioned Chilon forward and the stallion responded eagerly, spreading into a full gallop and racing onto the battlefield ahead of all the others. Xena resheated her katana and grabbed onto her bow. She stood in the stirrups, laid an arrow across the bow and aimed.

The arrow seared ahead and thudded into the heart of an enemy soldier, the force of it actually sending him flying back. Xena released another arrow, and another and another, each arrow hitting its target with deadly precision. The Persian swordsmen fled before her in fear. But Chilon’s speed was much higher and as she neared them she traded the bow for her katana again, bringing it down on the first man she passed, splitting his skull into two.

Khrafstar roared out in anger as he saw the men run. “Cowards!” He yelled from his place atop the pass.

The fire beside him flickered calmly. Khrafstar glanced up at it, then returned his eyes to the battlefield to see a large black stallion racing forward. A grin crossed his face. “Xena.” He laughed softly, then turned back to the flames, his eyes eager. “Let me go down there, my Lord. Let me kill her for you.”

The flames roared, the force of it blowing the priest back several paces. Hastily he dropped to his knees. “I meant no disrespect, my Lord. I only….”
Another roar as they flames licked at him, a cold blue in their heart now.
“Naturally, Dark Lord,” Khrafstar bent his head. “She is yours.”

Xena twisted the katana around and swung at her other side, slicing through a shoulder. A hand grabbed onto her leg and she kicked out, causing her assailant to loose his balance. Chilon took a step sideways and reared, hitting him square in the chest and sending him flying backwards. Xena unhooked her chakram and let it fly, slicing two throats before returning to her hand, leaving blood on her palm.

The other horses caught up to her now, chasing down the fleeing Persians with loud yells. A spear flew past her and she grabbed onto it, halting it before it could fly towards any of her companions. She brought it down, knocking someone in the head, before tossing the weapon up and catching it again, switching from an underhand to an overhand grasp. With a yell she tossed it forward, back at its owner. It passed straight through his stomach.

A yell came from in front of her and the next moment a front of spearman came charging at them, long spears aimed for the horses. Xena’s eyes widened, then she pulled Chilon back quickly, spinning him around. “Get back! Now!”

The other horses tried to follow her example, but some were more agile then others. As she rode back, a horse beside her slipped and went crashing into the spear tips. The animal screamed out in pain.

The shifting of arrows behind her and she ducked, letting the ones aimed at her fly overhead. Beside her a man was hit and he tumbled off his horse.

Xena tied a knot in the reigns, then hopped up in the saddle, managing to get her feet under her. She stood, then turned, careful to keep her balance on the fast moving stallion. She could see the spearmen and behind them the archers lined up, taking aim again. Quickly she unhooked her chakram, sending it soaring. It hit rock wall, then soared sideways, cutting through bowstrings, causing the flaming arrow tips to fall at the archers’ feet.

The archers fell, but the spearman continued on after her, now joined by a number of swordsmen. Xena stared at them, then looked to her left where a cloud of dust was now rising up. Xena bared her teeth at her pursuers in a ferocious smile, before letting herself fall back in the saddle, twisting around to face forward once more. “Now!”

As one front the horses turned and raced back at the approaching spearmen. Surprised by this, the spearmen slowed, looking at each other in confusion.

The next thing they knew they were overtaken from the side as Dorian and his cavalry trampled over them.

“Yah!” Xena let her laugh ring over the battlefield as she rejoined the fighting, unsheathing her second sword and moving one to either side, decapitating two men at once. From her camp she could hear the yells and the cheering as the horses decimated the Persian followers in mere moments. She couldn’t see the camp anymore though as the Greek fire, greedily feeding on the dry grass, covered the battlefield in clouds of smoke.

A yell sounded from the other side and Xena looked up to find figures rising from the smoke, thousands at once now, storming out off the pass. “Crap,” the Empress managed to mutter, before hastily reaching for her bow. A man ran passed, Greek fire burning at his skin as he screamed. Xena reached over, lighting the tip of her arrow on his hair, before aiming it up to signal the infantry. She’d only just released it, when hands grabbed onto her, dragging her off Chilon’s back.

Gabrielle hopped over a log, then sped up again. She was breathing heavily now, but not as heavily as Odilon, who was trailing behind somewhat.

The sun was rising, higher and higher. It was hard to tell the time, because of the thick rain clouds, thick drops of rain pelting down onto her forehead. Gabrielle closed her eyes, forcing her body to keep running.

The sound of hoof beats came from behind her and Gabrielle smiled, recognizing the sound. Behind her, Odilon glanced back, then released a relieved sigh. “It’s the horses!” He managed to yell at the warrior. “Hold up!”

Gabrielle kept her speed though, but moved to the left a little. Moments later Argo rushed past Odilon, dragging the spies’ horse along behind. The mare moved up next to Gabrielle, then slowed a little to match the warrior’s speed. Gabrielle took a step, another one, then she pushed herself up into a flip, neatly landing back in the saddle.

Odilon blinked, then rolled his eyes in disgust. “Show off!”
Gabrielle ignored him though, untying Odilon’s horse from Argo and carelessly tossing his horse’s reigns aside, before pressing Argo forward. The mare instantly sped forward, leaving Odilon behind in their dust.

The dry ground made for a hard landing, Xena winced as the grains of sand scraped over her bare back. There was no time to dwell on this though, as a sword was headed for her face. She quickly turned, then turned again as a spear embedded itself right next to her ear. She grabbed onto the sword and spear, using them to balance herself as she pushed herself up, slamming her feet into the two men nearest to her. A third had his comrade’s sword thrown at him. Xena lifted the spear, blocking an axe with the wooden end, then moving the tip up to slice through a neck. Arrows came soaring down on them again, the Persian’s apparently not caring whether they hit their own troops. Xena swatted one aside, then another, then….

A scream escaped her as a third arrow embedded itself in her shoulder. She staggered back, dropping the spear mostly from shock. She hesitated a moment, then reached for the shaft of the arrow, snapping it. The movement jarred the tip embedded in her flesh and sent a soaring pain through her left arm.

A yell behind her and Xena hastily spun around, only just in time to avoid the sword thrust at her. She slammed her fist into his face, then reached for her chakram and swung it at him ferociously. The man screamed as his arm fell to the ground, blood splurging from his shoulder. The blood drops splashed onto Xena, but she ignored them as she swung the chakram at an unprepared neck, reaching behind her and wrapping her left arm around a neck, snapping it with a simple move.

Arrows appeared from the mist again and Xena quickly reached for a Persian and swung him in front of her, using him as a shield. His body jerked as several arrows hit him in the chest.

A roar from behind her and Xena twisted around again, ready for the next kill. But she breathed a sigh of relief as men wearing her own colors swarmed around her. Xena stayed back a moment, letting the infantry move past her, giving her a moment to breathe. A neigh sounded and a moment later Chilon came running from the mist.

She climbed onto his back. The wind picked up, blowing the smoke aside for a moment, allowing Xena to see ahead of her. Her eyes widened as she saw nothing but bodies and weapons and Persian banners flying.

Xena’s mind raced. Her infantry was no match against this force. They’d be slaughtered.

She needed to withdraw. But if she ordered the retreat now the Persian cavalry would follow and strike them down.

Xena wiped at the sweat on her forehead, which was dripping into her eyes. A diversion. She needed a diversion to draw them off a moment, to allow the infantry to pull back and regroup.

She looked around, then spotted her target, pushing Chilon forward. The stallion ran over a few Persians before he pulled to a halt beside another horse. Xena kicked out, freeing Dorian from one of his assailants. Her second-in-command disposed of another man on his own, swinging his axe down and splitting his skull.

“There's too many!” Xena yelled at him, over the roar of the battle. “Gather some cavalry, circle around, attack from the left. Give the infantry time to retreat, then get the Hades out of here!”
“We’ll loose the pass!” Dorian yelled back, as his horse reared and hit a spearman.
“We’ve lost the damn pass!” Xena countered. “Now do as I say!”
Dorian swallowed, then nodded. “Yes, General!” He gutted a last Persian, then spun his horse around, calling out to his troops.

Xena grabbed for her katana, spurring Chilon towards the front lines. The smoke still lingered here and Xena let out her yell as she approached her soldiers, alerting her of her presence. She spotted a young soldier, fighting a large Persian with a double edged sword. It came down on him and the young man barely managed to keep the sword from touching his skin.

Xena steered Chilon towards him, reaching them just before the Persian was about to bring his sword down again. She reached down, grabbing onto the Persian’s neck and dragging him along, away from the soldier.

The soldier struggled and moved his sword back blindly, managing to nick her in the side of the neck. Xena yelled out in fury, pulling him up with all her power and somehow managing to fling him over the horse and into the Persian troops. She let out her battle cry and heard her troops respond as she raced past the front lines, raising her sword and slicing up one Persian after the other.

Chilon jumped as a spear tip grazed his flank. Xena grabbed on, somehow managing to stay on as he moved sideways. Her eyes flicked over the Persian soldiers, till she found the spearman who’d hurt her horse. She narrowed her eyes at him, then she flung her chakram at him, the metal ring slicing through both his legs. “Keep your paws off my horse!” She yelled at him.

She hadn’t heard the arrows coming this time and the pain as one embedded itself into her side was excruciating. Another one hit her in the thigh. She reached for the arrow shaft at her side, then hastily forgot about the arrow as her chakram appeared from the mist, soaring back at her.

She lifted both her hands, grabbing onto the chakram on both sides. The force of the weapon blew her backwards, sending her tumbling off Chilon’s back again.

A spear grazed her side. She reached for it, blindly, pulling it from the ground and swinging it around her, to clear some space. She gathered all her strength, then hopped back to her feet again. She jabbed her katana back, gutting a soldier, then swiped it at her own leg, cutting through the arrow shaft sticking out from her leg. She then jabbed the sword forward, embedding it in a Persian stomach. She let go of the hilt a moment, breaking the arrow shaft at her side off as well, then grabbed onto the hilt again as the Persian fell away from it.

“Empress!” Several young soldiers gathered around her in defense. “You okay, Empress?” One of them asked. She recognized the boy as one of her prison guards, Ellos.
“Just peachy.” She flashed him a grin, then yanked him aside and kicked out, neatly snapping an enemy’s neck in two. “When some of our horses storm in here, you run back for the camp, understood?”
“We’re retreating?” Ellos asked.
“We’re regrouping,” Xena corrected him, swinging her katana around her body as she prepared for the next Persian to come at her. “Spread the word.”

The Persians had spotted her now and she saw several officers moving in her direction, all heavily armored and armed.

Her side hurt, her arm hurt, but she pushed it all aside. She took a firmer hold on her katana, grasping onto her chakram with her other hand. Then, in stead of waiting for the enemy to come to her, she rushed the last steps forward.

It was pure instinct and Xena let it take her. In a flurry of movement she gutted two swordsmen, then decapitated a third with her chakram. She elbowed a forth, broke a kneecap with a savage kick. With a yell she ran up a lieutenant’s body, kicking him in the face before flipping back, landing behind another Persian and snapping his neck.

A blow against her back sent her crashing to her knees. Someone reached for her and she wildly chopped at him, severing his hand. A kick at her side made her cringe, then another made her scream out in pain as it hit the broken arrow shaft, sending the tip deeper into her body.

She tried to get up and managed to sweep the legs of two soldiers out from under them. But a hilt impacting w

Cleopatra jumped up as she saw the Empress fall. She scanned the battle eagerly, searching between the smoke. Waiting for her to get back up, like she’d done before.

Only she didn’t.

Without another thought the Egyptian jumped into her chariot. “Ride!”
“But the signal….” The charioteer started.
Dark eyes snapped to him in fury. “You wish a signal? I will give you one.” And with one swift move she punched the man in the face.

He fell, tumbling out of the chariot. “Idiot,” Cleopatra spat at him, taking the reigns and spurring her horses forward, racing down the hillside.

The world around her turned to chaos. Blades left and right, hands reaching for her. Around her, patches of grass were lit up by flames. A kick to the side of her face slammed her cheek against the ground and left her staring right into the fire. The flames flickered and shifted, forming into a face. It laughed at her, tauntingly.

Xena quickly faced away from it, looking up again, blinking to clear her eyes. She pushed herself sideways as the tip of a sword came right at her. She rolled over, pushing the arrow shaft in her side in even deeper in the process. Her eyes widened and her hands grasped at the earth, reaching for something to steady herself. A kick at her shoulder rolled her onto her back again and she stared up at the sky. Past the angry faces, past the metal heading for her. Above her, the clouds split a fraction, allowing a ray of light to fall through and warm her face.

Then a shadow fell over her again. Xena closed her eyes, waiting for the final blow.

But it never came, as metal clattered on metal. Xena managed to pry open her eyes again to see a form standing over her, protectively. Her skin was golden in the gentle sunlight. Magical.

Xena smiled, managing to move her hand and touch her leg, the touch an instant comfort. “Gabrielle,” she managed to whisper, before she lost consciousness.

To be continued

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