DISCLAIMER: Xena, Gabrielle and Cyrene belong to TPTB yadda, yadda, yadda. All other characters are the property of the writer and cannot be used without permission
AUTHOR'S NOTE : While this may be classed as a Conqueror story the timeline takes place before Xena is in that position. Here she is a soldier and the leader of her army, on her mission to unite Greece under her leadership. It could rightfully be called a PRE-Conqueror story.
This is a sequel to “The Most Dangerous Game of All” and “The Undaunted Heart”. The links are here:
THANKS: Thanks to my beta Heather for giving it the once over and giving me the benefit of her experience.
FEEDBACK: Please, please, pleeezzeee!!!: email@example.com
Or join me at my Yahoo Group http://groups.yahoo.com/group/aurelia_fan/.
© May 2012
* * *
Xena's head rose and looked for the source of the call. Her young lieutenant, Maltus, trotted toward her. She wished it was anyone but him. His officiousness was overwhelming but he made up for it with enthusiasm.
Xena let her gaze roam over the large field her army had stopped in. She sighed and looked up at the sky. The weather was holding, although clouds in the distance warned of approaching rain. Moving an army in the rain was like trying to push a boulder uphill… painful and slow.
Her thoughts turned to a certain assassin who had been missing of late. What was Gabrielle doing? For the last four months it was a question she had silently asked herself time and time again. Where was she? Wasn't she about due to show up? Xena felt the familiar pang deep in her stomach. “Gods, Gabrielle, where are you?”
Maltus stood before her, looking up to see her as she sat mounted on Wraith. “My Lord.” He stood at attention silently.
“What is it?” If she didn't ask he would stand there until she did.
“We still have some light left.”
“Have the scouts returned?”
“Aye, my Lord. There's a large pasture about two leagues further on.”
She looked up at the sky again. “By the time we get there the sun will be behind the trees. No camp here tonight. Send out hunting parties and set up perimeter guards. Tell them this time I won't be so gentle if I catch any one of them dozing.”
Maltus saluted and did an about turn. Xena chuckled as she watched his receding back. A few nights ago she caught one of the guards sleeping and she beat his rear end soundly for doing so. If she remembered rightly, he was due to be digging pits until the next full moon.
Xena nudged Wraith into a slow walk, steering him toward the small group of soldiers that were her elite guard. She was looking for someone in particular. “Brachius!”
The bear of a man pushed his way through the throng to stand in front of Wraith. His hand slapped his massive chest. “My Lord!”
He had been a total surprise to her, proving his loyalty in oh so many ways. She rewarded him with the captaincy of her personal guard. “I have a job for you.” Xena was sick of waiting for Gabrielle to show up, so she would go in search of her. Maybe Brachius could shed some light on Gabrielle's disappearance.
* * * * *
Brachius found himself in a very familiar position, nursing an ale in a quiet corner of an inn. Before it had always been to spy on Xena's enemies, but this time it was different.
This was his fourth inn in four nights, his progress steadily forcing him toward Apollonia in search of the information Xena wanted. His prolonged occupation of his seat without a refill finally drew attention and he was forced to walk to the bar to purchase another drink.
“Barkeep! Another ale.” He put the mug on the tabletop and turned around to look at the room. There was silence for a moment before the customers returned to their conversations. Brachius turned around to face the bar. A new mug slammed down on the counter, the ale sloshing over the sides and onto the tabletop.
“One dinar,” the barkeep said gruffly.
Brachius reached into his belt and pulled out a coin, flicking it onto the bar. “Any chance of a meal?”
“Aranthia!” the barkeep yelled. “One special!” He addressed Brachius, “Two dinars.”
Again he reached into his belt pocket and pulled out the coin for his meal. When the barkeep finally walked away Brachius leaned on the heavy wood of the bar top and took a sip of his ale.
Two workers came in from outside, walking up to the bar to place their orders. “Two ales, Darion!”
The smaller of the two them talked quietly. “Did you hear they finally caught that assassin fellow?”
“Eagle? Crow? No, it was some sort of bird.”
“Raven! Yes, that was it.”
“Who was it?” The brawny young lad sipping on his ale asked after swallowing.
“From what I hear it was a woman,” the small man replied.
Brachius' attention was drawn to the conversation.
“A woman? That can't be right. Assassination is a man's job.”
Brachius smiled. One day he should introduce them to the leader of his army.
“No, I'm sure he said woman, because he said she was a pretty little thing with blond hair and the face of an angel.”
Brachius felt a sweat break out on his forehead. He knew a woman of that description but she was just a farm girl, wasn't she? Still, she did show deadly skills with a bow and arrow. Xena had asked him to find out information about Raven, so did she know who Gabrielle was?
“Excuse me, sir.” Brachius interrupted the conversation. “Did you say that Raven has been captured?”
The two workers looked him up and down.
“My employer narrowly escaped with his life against Raven. I think he would like to take a look at whoever it was who had tried to kill him.” Brachius congratulated himself on a rather inventive story.
The two men looked at each other before the small one spoke. “She's in prison in Apollonia, but you better hurry. She's due for execution at the next full moon.”
“She's had her trial already?”
“What trial?” The small man said then laughed.
“Thank you for your time.” Brachius chuckled then took his ale back to his table. The smile dropped from his face. The next full moon. That was little more than a week away and he had four days' ride back to the army.
* * * * *
Xena stepped out of her tent at the call of an incoming messenger. She watched Brachius approach rapidly, his horse lathered and foaming. He had ridden hard. There was only one reason why he would push his horse like that. Bad news, and in this case bad news concerning Gabrielle.
She tried to appear calm and collected, but inside she was anything but. Her heart raced and her mind was in disarray. At this moment she wished that love wasn't playing an important part in her life because she couldn't think. Xena waited for Brachius to dismount before turning toward her tent. “Follow me.”
She entered and allowed her façade to drop for a moment before re-applying it when she heard the tent flap rustle.
“My Lord!” Brachius slapped his chest and bowed his head respectfully.
Xena turned to face him, watching him intently. “What did you find out?”
“Raven has been captured and is sentenced to death.”
Xena's jaw's clenched. “When?”
“The next full moon, my Lord. In three days' time.”
Xena barely had time to process the information before she began to move. “Where?”
She thought she had already taken care of that part of Greece , but it seemed she was wrong. But she didn't have time to rescue Gabrielle with a show of force. Her army would arrive too late. “Find General Graxion for me.”
“My Lord, please. I will go with you.”
Xena stopped. “Will? Is that a demand, Brachius?” she growled.
“I would never presume such a thing, my Lord. But this is Gabrielle we're talking about. Let me at least protect your back.”
Brachius was right. He was the only other who knew Gabrielle's secret. And he could be helpful in this foolhardy venture of hers. “Fine. Send someone to find Graxion. I will be leaving immediately.”
Brachius saluted and left, leaving Xena standing alone in her tent. She found a flask of wine and uncapped it, taking a healthy swig from it. The wine slid down her throat easily but did little to settle her stomach. Three days. She walked over to her work table and let her gaze slide over her campaign map. Her army was now well within the reach of Delphi and Chalcis .
Her head hung down. Damn it, Gabrielle! What did you do to get caught? There was only one reason Gabrielle would be distracted and that was emotion. Xena's normally logical mind thought of all sorts of scenarios concerning Gabrielle's capture. Was there someone else in her life? Someone besides Xena? Her fist tightened in anger. Would Gabrielle betray her? Xena's arm swept the table clean, sending parchment and drink flying.
“My Lord.” Graxion's quiet voice interrupted her rage. “Is everything all right?”
“Our friend in the forest is in need of my help. I will departing as soon as I gather some things together.” Xena pointedly didn't answer Graxion's question. “Brachius and I will be heading back to Apollonia immediately. Keep moving the army toward Chalcis . I will find you there.”
Graxion took a few steps toward Xena. “My Lord, if I may be so bold…”
Xena sighed and let the anger bleed away. It seemed everything wanted an opinion on this matter. “What is it?”
“Once you find the girl, bring her back with you. The safest place for both of you is together.”
Xena raised one eyebrow.
“This old man only wants to see you happy, my Lord.”
Xena chuckled. Was she that transparent?
“Is there anything you need?” he offered.
“Brachius will need a fresh horse. And some provisions if you please.”
“Consider it done, my Lord.”
“Thank you.” Xena watched him walk to the tent flap. “And Graxion?” He turned around at the call of his name. “When did you get so smart?”
“I believe I caught it from you, my Lord.” He smiled at her and left.
Xena resumed her packing. She opened her trunk and inspected the contents, looking for one item in particular. She hadn't had the need for it in a long time and more than once she had considered throwing it away, but now more than ever it was a necessary thing to take. At the bottom rolled into a ball was what she was looking for. She took out the cloth and shook it out, placing the dress against her body and wondering if it would still fit.
“Gods, Gabrielle. I hope you appreciate what I'm doing for you.” She folded up the garment and slipped into a waiting bag. Xena stripped off her armor and put it in her trunk. While she felt naked without it, this particular mission required her to be as inconspicuous as possible, and that meant leaving her armor behind. If she could lop off her legs at the knees as well then she might succeed. Her height was certainly going to be a disadvantage. There were not many women in Greece who were as tall as she was. Still, it couldn't be helped.
For good measure, she removed her bedroll, a couple of knives, a small bow and arrows and a rather bland looking sword. The sword she had kept at her side for the last two years went into storage. Now was not the time for someone to recognize the hilt. When she felt she had everything she needed, Xena removed one final item. Her hunting outfit. Her hands lovingly ran over the soft leather chamois and she lifted it out carefully. Gone were the days where she would hunt freely, and her time was her own. Hunting parties now replaced her own hunting instincts. She missed the old days sometimes, and it was no more keenly felt than now.
She lifted the outfit to her nose and she could smell everything – her sweat, deer scent and, most importantly, the memories. Maybe one day she and Gabrielle could go hunting together. Knowing Gabrielle's competitive spirit, the hunt would turn into a contest, one that she was not going to lose easily. If Gabrielle wanted to win she'd have to earn it. Xena's smile dropped. That is, if she got to Apollonia in time to save her.
Xena removed her shift and put on the leather outfit, the soft skin fitting her like a well used glove.
She made sure she was covered before answering. “Come!”
“The horses are ready.”
“Thank you.” She had a sudden thought. “I won't be taking Wraith. Get me another horse.” The big black stallion would draw too much attention as they rode into Apollonia. The messenger scurried out of the tent to deliver the message. Xena grabbed her belongings and strode out of the tent into the sunlight.
Brachius stood beside his horse, his satchel firmly seated behind the saddle. His eyes widened at her appearance, but he said nothing.
Another horse hastily appeared. Xena nodded at the handler and easily mounted it. Her legs clamped tightly around his middle as she settled her bedroll. She was ready to ride, but Brachius was still at attention beside his mount. “Are you waiting for an invitation?”
He scrambled into the saddle, his left hand holding the reins confidently. “Ready when you are, my Lord.”
Xena saw Graxion standing a short distance away. She nodded at him then kicked the horse into a canter. She could feel her men studying her as she left, but none stared directly at her. When she had left the field, she kicked the horse into a full gallop. She didn't look over her shoulder because she fully expected Brachius to be behind her. A fork in the road came up.
“To the left, my Lord!” he called. She pulled the rein and applied pressure to his side, urging the horse to veer to the left. She didn't slow down or question the choice. Xena rode hard. She would defer to Brachius's directions because there was no time to argue.
After an hour's hard riding, Xena slowed the horse to a canter, then a walk. She waited for Brachius to catch up to her. The sky was slowing changing hue as the sun set. “What's up ahead?”
“There's an inn about another hour away.”
“Fine. We'll stop there for the night.”
“But, my Lord–”
“As much as we both want it, it's too dangerous to ride at night. That is unless you want to walk with the horse all night.” If she could, Xena would ride all day and night to get to Apollonia on time, but it would be tiring riding continuously for the next two days. She couldn't affect a successful rescue if she was exhausted. “No, we'll get a good night's sleep and set off at sunrise.”
They rode on at a fast canter, trying to get as much distance toward their goal as possible. Time was running out.
Abruptly Xena pulled up and dismounted. She untied her roll and threw it over her shoulder, walking off the road and into the surrounding forest. She didn't need to look to know that Brachius was staring at her in confusion. An explanation could wait.
Ten minutes later she emerged. Xena flung her bedroll over the horse's haunches and tied it down securely. She pulled the material up and slid her leg over the saddle easily.
“A new look, my Lord?”
“The name's Anea and you're my husband. Got it?”
He looked at her seated securely on the horse's back wearing a dress. “Understood, my … Anea.”
She almost laughed out loud when he stumbled over the name. “The hunting gear was easier to explain than leaving the camp in this.”
“You don't need to explain it to me, my Lord.”
“No, I don't, but you need to get the details right for when the men ask you later on.” She nudged her ride into a trot and the inn appeared another minute later.
“How did you…?”
“I could smell it.” Xena grinned, making sure that Brachius didn't see it. She always liked to appear superhuman even when she wasn't.
He brought his mount up beside Xena. He sniffed the air. “Ahh. A wood fire, and…”
“Lamb, if I'm not mistaken.” Xena nudged her horse on to the inn, dismounting outside the front door. She grabbed her bedroll and carried it in her arms, foregoing the urge to just toss it over her shoulder.
Brachius took her mount and led the two horses to the nearby barn, wrapping the reins around a hitching post. He grabbed his bundle and trotted over to a waiting Xena.
“After you,” she announced.
“Yes… dear,” he whispered.
Brachius strode into the inn, heading for the bar. “ Inn keeper, we would like a room for the night.”
While Brachius made the arrangements Xena stood by, her head downcast as she observed the customers in the room. There were mostly farm workers sipping an ale before going home, but there was a handful of Apollonian soldiers as well. It grated on her to act subservient, but now was not the time to assert herself. This was a rescue mission after all. Xena bowed her head a little more to allow her dark hair to fall over her face, while she slumped her posture a little to appear shorter.
She nearly missed the call from Brachius. She shuffled over to his side. “Yes, husband dear?” Internally, she winced. The ‘dear' comment was maybe a little too much.
“I've ordered some dinner. Find a table while I get us something to drink.”
Xena bowed her head and went in search of a table, preferably one against a wall and near a corner. She tilted her head to one side as she passed the soldiers, pulling her bedroll up close to herself.
“I ‘ear Xena is heading for Delphi ,” one soldier remarked.
Xena stopped for a moment, pretending to look for an empty table.
“She won't be much of a threat to them since we beat her soundly.”
The men laughed and Xena was so tempted to show them how much they had beaten her. It was funny how much two different viewpoints told the same story. She was under the impression that she was the one who had beaten the Apollian army.
“Did you see ‘er on that giant horse of hers?”
“Yeah. I wouldn't mind an hour or two with her,” a third soldier said. There was a round of raucous laughter.
Xena couldn't see his face but she could imagine that the comment came with an appropriate leer. In your dreams. Now, in my dreams it would be a certain assassin.
“The horse was a stallion, you moron!” Another round of laughter erupted.
Xena continued down the narrow aisle toward the back of the room. There was no point listening to the conversation any further. It had been reduced to lewd remarks and erotic innuendo. Men. Still, it brought up the point that she might be recognized in the city, despite being dressed differently. She pondered this when Brachius sat down with two mugs. He slid one across the table to her.
“A problem, my… errr Anea?”
“Those soldiers behind you...” She waited while Brachius casually looked over his shoulder. “They were talking about me.”
He smiled. “And?”
“And it made me think that I might be recognized in Apollonia.”
“So what do we do now?”
“I'll have to come up with a new plan.” The meal arrived and Xena began to eat. Once the servant had moved away she continued, “This may be more difficult than I first thought.”
* * *
Their room, while small, had been comfortable. Brachius had no qualms where he would be sleeping. He silently laid out his bedroll on the floor and crawled in, leaving Xena the bed. However, her comfort was short lived. The mattress was lumpy and no amount of punching it would distribute the filling evenly. Finally, tiredness overtook her and she slept fitfully on it.
At first light the next morning Xena and Brachius set off. They had to make use of every precious second of light they had that day to cover as much distance as they could. Time was running out. The progress had been steady. Xena didn't want to push the horses too hard because they had to keep moving, so she alternated between a gallop and a slow canter, giving their rides as much rest as she dared.
By the end of the day she estimated that they were about half way. This time she pushed a little further in the waning light, content to set up camp and forego the comfort of an inn. Actually, she preferred sleeping under the stars. Maybe it was a longing for the good old days when she was wild and free, and without a worry about anything except herself. There were no armies, responsibilities or agendas. She was her own woman who decided where she would go and what she would do. Xena sighed as she lay on her back looking up at the stars.
“Is there a problem, my Lord?” Brachius was obviously still awake.
“No. Just enjoying the moment.”
“What are we going to do about the girl?”
Xena chuckled. “Don't let Gabrielle hear you call her a girl.”
“She's but a wisp of a thing.”
“Maybe to you or me, but she's all woman, believe me.” She wondered if Brachius had felt her lover's fury yet. “Don't worry about it. We're not going to lose her if I have anything to say about it. I'm working on a plan.” What that plan would be still eluded her. She had half-expected a question from Brachius but he remained silent. “We should get some sleep. Tomorrow is going to be a long day.”
* * *
She was right. The following day was one long ride, but it saw them approach the city gates as the last of the sun's rays touched the top of the guard tower. Xena hadn't ridden like that in quite a while and her ass was feeling the full brunt of the exercise. But she would suffer the pain ten-fold to reach Gabrielle.
Xena secured a room for the night in one of the inns on the outskirts of the city while Brachius tended to the horses. She waited for his return at the back of the large common room. She sipped her drink and observed the locals, who were laughing and cheering. It seemed that her recent foray on the city did little to dampen their spirits.
Brachius entered and looked around the room. Xena made a subtle signal to him and he approached swiftly. “I found this.” He handed over a piece of parchment which had a proclamation on it. “It was tacked on the door of the stables.”
Xena read the parchment carefully. “It's the announcement of the execution. It seems that tomorrow at noon they will execute this Raven with a beheading.”
“Does it say what this Raven did?”
Xena flipped the parchment over in case there was something written on the back. “No, it just says that the criminal Raven will be executed in the public square when the sun was at its highest.” She pursed her lips. At that moment their meal arrived and talk was suspended until they reached their room.
As soon as the door closed, Brachius spoke. “We can't leave the lass there, my Lord.”
“Keep your voice down,” Xena hissed. She couldn't help but smile despite the dire situation. It seemed that Gabrielle had another admirer. Well, she outranked Brachius and she was first in line for the woman's affections. “We're not going to.”
“First thing in the morning, you try to visit her at the prison.” She reached into her bedroll and pulled out a small sack. “Bribe them if you have to. I want Gabrielle to know we're here.” She threw the sack to him. “Try to discourage the idea she is an assassin.”
“Use your imagination. I know you have that.” Xena turned her back and undid her bedroll. She rolled it out and looked at her belongings. Sitting in a pile was her hunting outfit. A sly smile crossed her lips. “And I think I've got a plan.”
* * * * * *
Brachius turned up at the prison bright and early the next day, much to the disgust of the jail keeper.
“What do you want?”
“I believe you have the assassin Raven?” Brachius said lightly.
“I'd like to see the prisoner before the execution.”
“You're too late.”
Brachius's heart beat wildly. Had Gabrielle already been executed? “When?”
“When did Raven die?”
“Not yet, but the prisoner is not getting visitors.”
“Why not? He's not going anywhere.”
“He?” The jailer looked perplexed.
“Of course he. What are you talking about?” Brachius put on his best irritated face.
“The assassin is a woman.”
“He most definitely is not, unless the woman has something extra she shouldn't have.” When the jailer didn't make a move, Brachius continued, “Are we going to take a look or not?”
“Not.” The jailer reached for his chunk of bread and stuffed it in his mouth.
“Look,” Brachius leaned on the table and stared at the man behind it. “Do you really want to execute someone who may not be the assassin?”
“I don't care,” the jailer spat out, breadcrumbs liberally scattering over the table. “They said it was her and that's all I need to know.”
“Then for my satisfaction, can I have a minute with her?” Brachius reached down to his pocket and jiggled it so the sound of coin could be heard.
The jailer's body didn't move but his eyes did. They widened and glanced where Brachius's hand rested. He put down his bread, stood and walked to the door, lifting the keys down from their spot on the hook. Brachius followed silently behind, looking into the cells as they passed them to the large door at the end of the corridor.
The key sounded loud and heavy as it turned the enormous lock. Whatever else they did, they were making sure that the assassin stayed put. As Brachius walked by the jailer put out is hand. Brachius reached into his pocket and extracted a number of coins, dropping them into his hand. “Two minutes.”
Brachius wanted more, but two minutes was all he had. He stepped into the dim room and waited for his vision to adjust. Like all cells, it smelled of many things, most of which had to do with bodily functions. He wanted to get the girl out even more urgently.
“Lass?” he murmured gently.
What looked like a pile of cloth stirred in the corner. Brachius moved slowly closer, as if he was trying not to scare the occupant of the room. When he thought it safe to do so, he called her name. “Gabrielle?”
The cloth dropped away and he looked into a pair of haunted eyes. Brachius couldn't dismiss the bruises and cuts on her face, and he could feel his anger rise. He hunkered down beside her. “How goes it there, lass?”
She didn't answer, but then again she didn't have to.
“They did this?” She nodded.
“Xena?” she croaked.
“She's near,” he whispered. Gabrielle tried to smile but stopped when it hurt too much. Brachius stood and went back to the door. “Jailer! Some water, please!”
The door opened and he stood there glaring at him. Brachius reluctantly reached into his pocket for another couple of coins. “What difference does it matter? She's going to die anyway.”
“She can't answer my questions without it.”
“What are you asking her?” He eyed Brachius suspiciously.
“The assassin tried to kill my wife and I want to know what she knows before she dies. That's how I know it was a man, you idiot. I saw him and he had all the male bits.” Brachius thought that maybe the ‘idiot' remark would get him locked up with her if he wasn't careful. The jailer hesitated for a moment, as if he was considering just that point. He closed the door, locked it and disappeared.
Brachius walked back to Gabrielle and extended his hand. “Can you stand?”
She grabbed his hand and allowed herself to be pulled up. When she staggered, his arm wrapped around her waist. A hiss escaped her lips.
“What? Let me see, girl.” Gabrielle shook her head. “What am I going to tell her? She will want to know everything.”
“Don't. It will…” Gabrielle paused and tried to swallow, “…kill her.”
Brachius knew that but could he lie to his general? He doubted it. Xena had a way of looking inside him to find the truth anyway. “Please, Gabrielle.”
She slowly undid the cloth and revealed the extent of her injuries.
“By the Gods!” Brachius breathed. No wonder they got a confession; they had beaten it out of her. “Looks like they had decided you were guilty from the beginning.” She nodded sadly and shifted. Brachius noticed the wince and Gabrielle favoring her left leg. “Broken?” he asked and she nodded. This was going to complicate things.
There was a sound behind him and Brachius turned to see the door open. The jailer handed over a metal cup to him and left, his eyes raking over Gabrielle's uncovered form. Sluggishly, she pulled her robes together.
Brachius put down the cup and helped Gabrielle to sit again. He retrieved the cup and gave it to her. He watched, full of anger and pain, as she gulped down the precious water. He crouched down. “Don't give up. We're here.”
Gabrielle shook her head. “Don't let her try a rescue. She'll just get herself killed.”
“Ahh, lass. Who's going to stop her, eh? Me? I doubt it. Even I can see she'll protect you with her life.” He tried to ignore the single tear sliding down Gabrielle's bruised face. “One way or the other, she'll be with you to the end.”
The door opened again and Brachius knew his time had run out. “Well, lass, you weren't able to help me, so I'll continue my search.” He winked at her before swiveling on his foot and walking out of the cell.
“Did you find what you were looking for?” the jailer asked as he escorted Brachius to the front door of the prison.
* * * * * * *
Xena watched Brachius leave for the jail with some trepidation. She dearly wished that she was the one visiting Gabrielle, but the risk was too great. The element of surprise was one of many factors she was counting on to tip the scales in her favor. She donned her dress for a walk outside.
She stepped out of the inn and onto the street. The city was bustling even at this early hour. Xena wove her way through the throng of farmers, buyers and sellers and soldiers. She ducked her head and kept her eyes on the ground, using her peripheral vision to observe what was going on around her. She went on her way, looking for the central square where the execution would take place.
It didn't take long to find the place in question. The platform was already in place and, by the state of it, it was used often. A block of wood sat squarely in the middle, stained with the evidence of its past use. It sent a shiver down her spine and she thought about what would happen in a few hours.
Xena's eyes glanced sideways. As a guard approached her she shifted on the spot and looked downward. “Yes, sir?” she answered in a gravelly voice.
“Stop loitering. The beheading isn't until noon.”
“Aye, sir.” She shuffled on and left the immediate area. But she didn't travel far. There was too much to plan in the short time she had. A tavern sat on the edge of the courtyard and Xena went inside. She found a vacant table next to a window overlooking the courtyard, and she ordered a hearty breakfast. As she munched on her bread, she studied the outlay of the buildings surrounding the execution site.
She had hoped to save Gabrielle before the execution would get to this point, but she was not one to leave anything to chance, especially with Gabrielle's life in the balance. Xena examined that thought while she drank. Gabrielle had become quite a distraction in her life of late, even to the point of stopping her progress toward Chalcis . That would have been unthinkable a year ago, and yet here she was doing just that.
There was a two storey building sitting behind the platform and she assumed it was the council building. “Hey there!” she called out to serving girl delivering an ale to an early-morning drinker. Xena waited patiently while the girl swerved out of the path of an oncoming hand.
“Is there something I can get you?”
“What's all the fuss in the square this morning?” Xena filled her mouth with food and tried to appear unconcerned about the conversation.
“Raven the assassin is being executed at noon.”
“Really? I had heard that he was working around Athens .”
“He?” the girl asked. “Oh no, Raven is a woman.”
“Funny, because my husband said a friend of his had a close call with the assassin and he was a man. I think if she was a woman he would have noticed.” Xena added a chuckle, trying to make a joke out of the statement.
“If you say so. Do you want anything?”
“I'd appreciate a glass of water.” She was disappointed that her remarks didn't cause a stir. Obviously the people didn't care who was being executed, as long as it was a good show and not them.
A minute later the girl returned with an earthen mug full of water. “What's that building over there?” Xena flicked her thumb in the direction of the square. “The two-storey one?”
The girl looked carefully at her before answering. “It's the council chambers. Why?”
“I was just thinking it would be a good spot to get a view of the beheading.”
The girl shrugged and walked away. Xena watched her leave and let out a sigh. The suspiciousness of the serving lass was nearly her undoing. It was now time to stop asking questions.
When she felt she had worn her welcome out, Xena stepped out of the inn. Her gaze scanned the square for possible vantage points. As she suspected, the council chambers was the only building high enough for her to get full view of the proceedings. However, if she was forced to launch an attack the distance to the ground was, by no means, small. Even for her own athletic stature the leap was fraught with danger. No, it would be the last act of a desperate woman.
Xena scanned the sky and decided that Brachius had had enough time to see Gabrielle. She was eager to hear the news.
* * *
“You took long enough,” Xena greeted Brachius as he entered their room.
“I'm sorry, my Lord.” Brachius closed the door behind him.
“Shhh, someone will hear you!”
“I'm sorry…” Brachius's brow furrowed for a moment, “… Anea dear.”
“That's better. How is she?” He couldn't look her in the eye. “What's happened?” Suddenly Brachius found something interesting on the back of a chair. “Answer me!”
“She's alive, Anea.”
“They'll pay for this!”
“Unless you want to break into the prison, there's not a lot we can do for now.”
Xena glared at him, but she knew he was right. “I know. I hate leaving her there.” She took a deep breath. “How is she, really?”
“Not good. It looked like they tried to get her to confess.”
Her façade darkened. “How bad is it?”
“Apart from the cuts and bruises, she has a broken leg.”
“Those b–… I'll cut their hearts out!” Xena paced as her mind raced furiously. “This is going to make an escape difficult.”
“We don't have a lot of options.”
“I know that!” Xena stopped pacing and stared at him. “That's what's making this so damned frustrating.” She sighed and rubbed her face. “Any chance of freeing her at the prison?”
“We might have a chance with the guard who let me in, but he wasn't the only one.”
“At least this many,” he held up both hands, “maybe more.”
“Very likely more. And that's just within the prison. It's just too risky in an enclosed space like that, especially with Gabrielle's leg. No, it looks like it will have to be at the square.”
“That's cutting it fine.”
“I know. Any delay by me and Gabrielle won't have to worry about her broken leg.”
“Do you have a plan?”
“Maybe, but I'm missing a hood.”
“Yes, doe or deer skin will do nicely. Do you think you can find one?”
He grinned. “I will do my best, my Lord.”
“Then hurry. Time's short.” She began to undo her roll and get out her hunting suit. “Meet me at the square. I'll be the one haranguing the stall owners.”
“But I thought–”
“I'm joking. Look for the person trying to look inconspicuous.”
“Or I could just look for the tallest woman there… my Lord.”
Brachius grinned at her and left. He was right. As much as she tried, there was only so much about herself she could hide.
* * *
Xena sat against a wall in the town square observing the lives of the peasants walking by. She looked up at the sky and saw the sun was nearly at its zenith. Time was just about gone. She scanned the crowd milling about, eagerly looking for the hulking form of Brachius.
Xena pulled the hood of her cloak down low to cover her face.
“I'm talking to you!”
She felt a harsh kick in her side. “Yes, sir?” she croaked.
“You can't stay here. Move along!” The soldier delivered another kick to emphasize his point.
Xena rose slowly and stretched herself, giving the impression of an old hag with stiff bones. Obviously, she didn't move fast enough because she received a buffet to her shoulder for good measure. She had just about had enough of the abuse and she was sorely tempted to just punch the man in the face.
She shuffled along, casting a wary glance over her shoulder at the guard who abused her. Maybe he might be a victim of the mayhem to come.
“In trouble again, Anea?”
Xena hid her surprise at being caught out. She'd been so busy studying the guard's face for future reference that she forgot to be aware of her surroundings. “Yes, husband dear. It seems they didn't appreciate me loitering.”
“Tsk tsk.” Xena glared at him and he dropped his smile. “Here.” He handed over the piece of hide to her. “It was on short notice.”
“As long as I can see out of it, it doesn't have to fit properly.” Brachius was about to speak, but Xena cut him off. “I'll cause a diversion. You snatch her and get the Hades out of here.”
“Use both horses. I'll find my own way out.”
“My L… Anea. This is too dangerous.”
“You don't trust me?”
Brachius lowered his voice. “With my life, my Lord, but I can't leave you unguarded. It is my job–”
“Your job is what I tell you to do!” Xena growled. “You get Gabrielle out of here and back to the army. I want the healer working on her leg immediately.” She knew the filthy conditions in the prison would work against Gabrielle's health. No, she needed immediate attention. “Go and saddle up the horses and move them close for a quick getaway.”
“Just do it!” She knew what he was going to say. It was a suicidal plan but it was the only one that she could think of. With a lot of luck she'd not only escape but also change their minds about who Raven really was.
* * *
The crowd had been steadily growing for the last few minutes. Xena wondered whether it was to see who the infamous Raven was, or the fact that it wasn't them on the block, that made them come.
Xena overlooked the scene in front of her from her vantage point. While the second storey council building was preferable for her attack, the escape route was less than ideal. She didn't fancy jumping off the roof to an uncertain landing point, so she sacrificed height for safety in this instance and took one of the lower buildings fronting the square instead.
Somewhere in the crowd was Brachius, or so she hoped. She scanned the mass of heads for his brawny build. After some searching she found him slowly pushing his way toward the front.
There was a commotion down in the street and Xena saw the guards shoving the citizens aside to allow the procession to pass. She caught a glimpse of Gabrielle limping badly. The filthy rag that barely covered her body did little to disguise the abuse she had suffered.
For the first time Xena knew indecision. She had always seen all the angles before an attack, but seeing Gabrielle hurt washed away her normally logical planning. Her razor-sharp mind was in disarray, and she was hard pressed to stop herself jumping down and taking on the entire city to free her lover.
Xena hunkered down from sight and breathed heavily. So it had come to this. How she fought was being influenced by a loved one. Gabrielle was becoming her weakness; a weakness that could ultimately lead to her death. That is, if she let it. For her plan to work, Xena needed a steady hand and a keen eye… and a fully functioning brain, of course. As she listened the commotion settled down.
“Citizens of Apollonia, we present to you the infamous Raven.” A few cheered, but most inhaled loudly or talked in hushed tones.
“That iddy biddy thing?” someone called.
“She ain't nothing but a girl,” said another.
“Nevertheless, she is Raven. She herself admitted it.”
“With a little help, by the looks of it.” Xena recognized Brachius's bass voice. “Let her go!”
“Yeah, let her go!” “She's not worth it!” “She's not Raven!” The calls came out loud and varied.
Xena caught a glimpse of the square below. Despite the calls to release Gabrielle, the soldiers were intent on seeing the beheading through to its grisly end. Xena picked up her bow, feeling the wood in her hand. She nocked an arrow and pulled the string back. It was a long forgotten feel in her fingers. It had been a while since she felt the need to use a bow. Now she hoped that her experience with weapons would hold her in good stead in a few moments time.
She allowed the bow to relax and pulled on the hood, adjusting it a moment or two so she could see through the eye holes. Gabrielle cried out momentarily and Xena suspected that she had been pushed to her knees. Time had run out. Taking a deep breath, Xena nocked the arrow again and stood up to face the crowd. The executioner had the axe in his hands and began to raise it above his head.
No one had noticed the lone figure standing on the roof until an arrow buried itself in the executioner's head. As one, the people looked around for the shooter. Brachius called out loudly, “Look! There! It's Raven!”
“It is not Raven.”
“That's Raven!” he repeated. “How could the girl be the assassin when he is standing up there?”
Xena nodded her head briskly as another arrow was in her hand and already nocked. She fired it and it sank deeply into the announcer's chest.
“There's Raven!” “Get him!” The Captain of the Guard called out, his hand waving frantically in her direction.
Xena fired another arrow, this time into the crowd to scatter them. People were running in all directions, slowing the guards' progress. Brachius was pushing his way through the throng and when Xena last saw him he had reached the platform. She wasn't able to wait and see whether he had Gabrielle or not, because if she didn't escape now her only exit would be blocked.
She had only taken a few steps down the staircase when she heard the guards coming. Reversing direction, Xena headed back to the roof. There had been only one side she could leap from, but it was a dangerous move at best. If she made it no one could follow her. She barricaded the door then ran to the side of the building, leaping off it in mid stride and lazily flipping in the air.
She felt the pain as soon as she landed. It was sharp, but not excruciating. As much as she wanted to take a moment to rest, arrows came in her direction and she was forced to move. They were trying to pin her down where she was, but Xena kept running, leaping off the lower roof to the ground below. The twinge became a steady throb and it was going to slow her down.
“There he is!” The voice was in the distance but her location was found. She couldn't stay there. Xena dodged in an out of doorways, looking for any small dark alcove that would give her respite.
She stripped off her hunting gear and shoved it into a nearby barrel, leaving her in nothing more than a flimsy shift. It was a dangerous move on her part to remove the disguise to reveal her true self. While it was doubtful that many of the common folk of the city wouldn't know her on sight, the soldiers would. Many of them knew first hand her anger and skill and were not likely to forget her face. She had to get off the streets before they found out who they were really hunting.
The scuff of boots sent her into the shadow of a doorway, and she watched a handful of soldiers run by her. The scuff turned into aloud clap of boot on stone. She reached behind her find a way into the building. The garrison were getting closer by the second and she was cornered. She lashed out with her foot and the door gave way. The door closed behind her a second before the main group passed by.
Xena's heart had been pounding wildly. Not that she was scared. She had always been a firm believer in fate. If it was her time to die then so be it. But this was not the way she wanted to leave. She wanted her death to be glorious and in the heat of battle, not at the whim of some lowly soldier. She limped further into the house.
“Who's there? My husband will be home any minute!”
Xena froze. It seemed her death wasn't going to be one of her choosing.
She watched the young woman reach to one side and grab a broom. The broom was brought to bear and it was waved menacingly in front of her face.
“Hold on!” Xena held up her hands. “I mean you no harm.”
The broom wavered and then lowered. “What do you want?”
“I'm sorry. The street was filled with soldiers. I had no where else to go.” As if to reinforce her statement there was a clattering of weapons as more soldiers ran by the door.
“Something has them riled up.” The woman brought the broom to her side and leaned on it.
“Something about an assassin, I think.” Xena stared at her in confusion. The woman hadn't asked about her state of undress. She lifted her hands and waved them in front of the woman's face. She took a step or two toward her, then a step back when the broom came up in a flash.
“Stay where you are,” she said calmly. “Who are you?”
“My name is Anea.” Xena stuck with the name she gave Brachius.
“Well… Anea… stay where you are.” The way the young woman said her name made Xena believe that her disguise was easily seen through.
“You don't have a husband coming home, do you?”
“Of course I do. He'll be here any minute.”
“So you say.” Xena took a step to the side and watched the woman's eyes. When they didn't follow her she knew why. “You're blind.”
The woman's eyes moved to where Xena's voice was. She opened her mouth then closed it. “I don't have anything of value here.”
“I'm not here to rob you. However, I could use something to put on.”
“And you're not robbing me?”
“I'm standing here in a shift and its a little cold.”
The woman put the broom aside and stepped up to Xena. Her hands came up and felt her arms, sliding up to her shoulders. “My, we are big.”
“You can say that again,” Xena mumbled.
The woman's head titled upward. “Very big. I don't have anything that would fit you.”
“And what is your name,” Xena whispered.
“Genea. Why are you in a shift?” She stepped back and searched for the broom.
“The clothes I had on were ruined.”
“Ruined, you say?” She smiled. There was a knock at the door. “There's a cloak hanging on the wall.”
Xena moved swiftly and threw the cloak over herself. She moved behind the ragged curtain that divided the home. Genea shuffled toward the door. “Who's there?”
“Open up!” The male voice sounded irritated.
Xena could hear the door open and she wondered whether this was the end. Genea had the perfect opportunity to turn her in to the soldiers.
“We're on the lookout for a fugitive. Have you seen anyone lurking around?”
“I'm sorry, sir, but I'm blind.”
“Oh, then step aside and I'll check your house for you.”
Xena heard the conversation and knew there was nowhere to hide. As little as it meant now, at least Genea hadn't revealed her presence. She could easily take care of the guard but it could present a lot more problems in escaping. The only option was to jump into the cot against the wall and pretend to be asleep. If things got messy, then she'd react.
“You there.” Xena heard the guard's voice and she knew he was about five feet away from her. “Wake up, wench. Stand up.” Xena lay still and waited for his next move.
“My sister can't hear you, sir. She's deaf.”
“Deaf? What sort of family are you?”
“We get along just fine, sir.”
“Are you two here by yourselves?”
“Our father is on the road a lot of the time. We keep each other company.” Genea sounded cheerful enough, so Xena suspected any fear she had she hid very well.
The guard poked around the home, helping himself to a loaf of bread sitting on the kitchen table. “If you hear anything–”
“I'll be sure to call for help, sir.”
Xena opened her eyes and listened to the guard leave and the door close. She threw back the threadbare blanket and stood up.
Genea appeared through the curtain. “That bastard stole a loaf of bread!”
Xena was impressed. “How did you know?”
“I could smell it on him. Just because I'm blind doesn't make me stupid!”
“I didn't say you were,” Xena said quietly. “Why did you say I was your sister?”
“It was all I could think of at the time.”
“You didn't turn me in.” Truthfully, Xena was expecting it.
“Well, you're just some lonely maid who's wandering the streets in a shift. What's wrong with that?” Genea grinned wickedly.
“Who are you really?”
It was a direct question and, considering the circumstances, it deserved a direct answer. “I ran away from my husband. I didn't get a chance to get dressed.”
“I see.” Genea moved to the kitchen without another word.
Xena stood where she was and watched the young woman move about the house. It was as if she wasn't there. “What's wrong?”
“You don't trust me.”
“I could have easily turned you in, but I didn't. I thought that was enough to prove I can keep a secret.”
“I'm a wife–”
“You are no one's wife,” Genea said firmly.
“Why do you say that?”
“You are a large woman who has an air of confidence about her. You are no man's wife, not unless you want to be.”
“And you are very astute.”
“Astute, but blind. Astute, but not an informant.” Genea took a step or two toward her. “Why are you here, Xena?”
Xena hesitated. It was then she realized that she had answered Genea's question. “Xena?”
“Why play these games?”
Xena moved closer until she was standing a few inches away from her. “Why indeed? What makes you think I won't snap your neck?” she said menacingly.
“It's a bit pointless. I present no threat to you.”
“Oh, but you do. You stand between me and escape.”
“But you can't escape without me. You'll never get past the guards.”
“Are you sure you know who I am?”
“Oh, I know.” Genea's hands came up to Xena's face, touching her cheeks tentatively. Her fingers mapped her face, leaving a tingling sensation in their wake. “Why risk capture alone?”
Xena took a deep breath. Was this going to be her undoing? “I was here to help a friend.”
The woman was too smart for her own good. “Who's that?”
“Raven was sentenced to death this morning. A young girl, I believe. Is she Raven?”
“They seem to think so.”
“And what do you call her?”
“Gabrielle. I call her Gabrielle.”
Xena studied Genea and knew the woman had put it all together. “Did she get away?”
“I don't know, but I could find out.”
Was she prepared to let Genea out of her sight? Would the next person she sees be a guard ready to arrest her? While the information would be welcome she was not in a position to do anything if Gabrielle survived. She had her own dire situation. “It's too dangerous.” Especially for herself.
* * *
“Aye, girl. Time to go.”
Gabrielle looked up from her position over the block and saw a welcome face. “What?”
“She's doing what she does best… cause mayhem.” Brachius's large hand swept up and landed against a guard's head. “No time to linger. Can you stand?”
The pain was excruciating but Gabrielle managed to get to her feet. She felt a wave of nausea sweep over her. Brachius's arm grabbed her around her waist and supported her.
“Watch it, girl. Don't want you falling down.”
She must have looked like she was ready to pass out. If she was in better shape she would have shrugged off any assistance, but she wasn't in a position to argue. “Go ahead… without…”
“That's not possible. She would kill me if I failed.”
Gabrielle smiled. “If the guards don't kill you first,” she croaked.
“Aye, girl, something like that.” He grinned at her for a moment before his smile faded. He swept her up into his arms and carried her off the platform.
“I can walk.”
“I know you can, but we are in a hurry.” He pushed his way through the crowd and Gabrielle forced herself to hold in the scream she wanted to let out. All the jostling was felt in full force in her leg, but now was not the time for pain. She pulled herself into Brachius's solid form, trying to use as much of his hulking form to protect her own body. It did little to stop the pain and the only reason she allowed Brachius to continue was the he was making headway through the mass of people.
“Now I get you back to camp.”
“Get me to a horse. I can find my own way.”
“No, lass… Gabrielle. She said to get you to the army's healer and that is what I'll do.”
“Even if it means Xena's life?”
“Aye, girl,” Brachius said gravely, “even if it means that.”
Brachius pushed his way down the busy street to the stables. He lifted Gabrielle onto Xena's horse and quickly mounted his own. “Let's get out of here.” He nudged the horse out of the stable and waited for Gabrielle to maneuver her beast. Once her mount was facing the barn door he kicked his horse, moving it into a fast walk out into the street.
People were everywhere. Brachius dug his heels into the horse's flanks and it flinched, shifting its weight onto its hind legs before moving forward. “Out of the way!” he hollered. He glanced over his shoulder and saw Gabrielle close behind him. Her grim expression didn't comfort him because he knew she was in pain with every move, but it couldn't be helped.
He used his horse to clear a path to make the ride easier for his charge. The crowd thinned as they approached the gates. There were a handful of guards around the gates and the wall, but his only concern were the two guarding the road that led to their freedom.
Brachius kicked the horse again, this time allowing the steed to bolt. He headed toward the gates and the two men blocking it.
“Hey! You there!”
He paid the voices no mind, concentrating solely on his two targets. The horse sped on and he was able to kick out with both feet, knocking the soldiers to the ground.
“There he is!” “Get him!”
He had been found but he didn't wait around to challenge them, letting the horse have his head and holding on tight. The sound of a second set of hooves was reassuring, but that didn't stop him from glancing over his shoulder. A handful of arrows flew from the castle wall, zinging past dangerously close to them. Gabrielle looked pale but they couldn't stop, otherwise they would be picked off by the archers.
A few moments later six soldiers on horseback passed through the castle gates and were in hot pursuit.
“No time to rest, girl!” Brachius flicked the reins and urged his horse on. The escape had now turned into a race to the death.
The hail of arrows stopped as they put some distance between them and the city walls. The forest approached quickly and Brachius knew he would be forced to slow down. The turn ahead afforded them a minute out of visual range of their pursuers, but after that it was going to take everything he had to keep them ahead of the soldiers.
Brachius swerved wildly as a foot soldier stepped into their path. He pulled his mount to a quick halt and turned around ready to strike him down.
“Hey!” The soldier's hands rose in surrender. “Through here!”
“Gods, Lechus, are you trying to get yourself killed?”
“No time.” He ran into the undergrowth, fully expecting the two horses to follow.
Brachius nudged his horse toward Gabrielle. “Quickly. Follow.” He pushed his horse hard behind Gabrielle's mount, shuffling the two beasts into the brush. A few seconds later the thunder of hooves filled the air. Brachius held up his finger to his lips, staying still as the hunting party passed them by.
“Come on,” Lechus said in a low voice. They followed the foot soldier deeper into the forest.
“What's going on?”
Brachius wanted to ask the same question, but kept his mouth shut to not appear foolish for asking.
“Soon.” Lechus continued on, pushing aside the ferns and branches to clear a way.
The undergrowth gave way to a small glen, which had an obstructed view of the city and surrounds. Brachius recognized Xena's personal guard, as well as General Graxion and some of his men. He couldn't count that many but there were quite a few soldiers milling around.
“General,” Brachius addressed him as he dismounted. “My Lord made no mention of your presence.”
“She doesn't know.” Brachius kept his mouth shut. “What? No questions?” Graxion said jovially.
“Sir, I have to get the girl to Jantius.”
“My Lord's personal healer? She must be held in high regard.”
“Very high regard, sir. She is who My Lord returned for.”
“Jantius! Your services are needed!” The healer pushed through the throng of soldiers. He bowed his head. Graxion pointed to Gabrielle and turned his attention to Brachius. “Tell me what's happened.”
Brachius urged Graxion to one side. “The girl was to be beheaded. My Lord didn't want that to happen. She's still in the city.”
“Do you know where she is?”
“No, general. I was ordered to get the girl out. My Lord could very well be in the city's dungeon being prepared for execution.”
“We can't let them get their grubby hands on her.”
“I know that, sir, but if I return now she'll ask questions. It's a two-day ride to the army and another two back to here.”
“Let me deal with her, all right?”
“Soldier, I'm making the decision here. We'll worry about her wrath later.”
“Now tell me about the outlay of the city.”
“I'm not very good with maps.”
“Never mind that. Just tell me what you saw.”
Brachius tried his best to describe the outlay, but he had only seen a portion of it. He watched the General draw in the dirt as he interpreted his words. He wasn't sure if it was correct and could only rely on the General's expertise with such things for it to be right.
“Aye, sir!” A young soldier stepped forward.
“Take a handful of men and intercept the hunting party. They are not to return. Dispose of the bodies some distance away and take care of the horses.”
“Won't that mean they'll send out another party?” Brachius asked.
“Maybe, but we'll have to risk it. If they return to the city they may report your disappearance around this part of the forest. We don't have enough soldiers to hold off a force from the city.”
“What about me, general?”
“They've seen your face, Brachius. I want you to escort the girl and Jantius back to the army.”
“That's an order, soldier! If it comes to conflict I want the girl out of the way.”
“Aye, sir.” Reluctantly Brachius agreed. He knew Graxion was right. If Gabrielle fell in conflict the whole mission would have been for nothing. But it irked him that he could not defend Xena. After all, it was his job, and he took his job seriously.
“You'll leave as soon as the girl is able to ride.”
“Sir.” Brachius saluted and left to find Gabrielle. Jantius was hunkered down over her leg. The look on Gabrielle's face said more than words could. He had found the source of her pain and was poking at it. Sweat broke out on her brow. Bravely she held the scream in, her lower lip caught between her teeth. A drop of blood touched her lower lip as she bit down.
“Jantius!” The healer looked up. “Lighten up on your touch, man!” He glanced up at Gabrielle's expression. He stopped what he was doing and reached for his satchel, pulling out a mortar and pestle and some cloth parcels. He sorted through his herbs, picking out one or two leaves from several packets and putting them in his bowl. The leaves were pounded into a paste and he scooped out a finger full and handed it to Gabrielle. Almost appreciatively she took it and slipped it into her mouth.
It took a couple of minutes before the tenseness relaxed around her eyes. She let out a sigh and smiled. Whatever he had given her had taken away the pain, and she nodded gratefully.
Jantius returned to his examination of her leg, his brow furrowing with concern. “This is not good.” He looked at Gabrielle. “When did this happen?”
“A while ago,” she whispered. “Maybe three days.”
He scraped out his bowl and went back to his collection of herbs. Murmuring to himself Jantius sorted through the leaves, picking up then discarding each one in turn. When he was finally satisfied with his choices he began to pound them. When the paste was prepared he smeared the mixture on her leg and bound it with some cloth. “This should help to draw out the swelling.”
“And the break?”
“That will take time. It will be difficult because of the delay and obvious use since the break. I will do my best to make sure you don't have a limp, young girl.”
Gabrielle's brows knitted together and Brachius laughed.
“She doesn't like to be called a girl. Her name is Gabrielle.”
Jantius looked from Brachius to Gabrielle, then moved back when he saw her displeasure. “Fine. Gabrielle.”
“We need to leave.”
“I would prefer not moving her.”
“We can't do that. We have been told to leave. I know of an inn a day's ride away.” Brachius looked at Gabrielle. “Can you make it that far?” She nodded. “We can rest up there for a few days while she recovers.”
“It will take longer than that.”
“But it's all we have. We can wait there for Xena.” He saw Gabrielle's reaction in his peripheral vision. He knew she wanted to be close by. “Sorry, girl, but it's not up to me. The General has ordered it.” He knelt down beside her. “I'll give you a few moments to prepare.”
* * *
Xena kept a close eye on Genea. She wasn't sure whether the woman would help or hinder her, but it was not something that she could afford to find out. It was only a matter of time before they did another house-to-house search, and each moment she delayed brought her one step closer to being discovered. “Hades, Gabrielle,” she muttered.
“Who is this Gabrielle you keep talking about?”
“I wasn't talking about her.” At least she didn't think she did. What else had she given away? “She's a friend.”
“Friend?” Genea smiled knowingly.
“Yes. When will your husband be home?”
Genea paused. Xena surmised she was counting off the days. “Tomorrow, I think.”
“What does he do?”
“He's a cloth merchant. He was delivering some of it to a fellow merchant in Chalcis .”
Xena shifted uneasily. Her army was heading in that direction. “Does he treat you fairly?” She hoped for a negative reply then she could justify his untimely demise if she had to.
But Xena could hear a tinge of fear in Genea's words. She obviously wouldn't say anything against him for fear of an errant slap, and being blind would make her a juicy target for his irritation.
“I have to get out of here before he returns...”
“…and before the soldiers begin another search.”
“Do you think so?”
“When their first search shows up nothing, believe me they will look again.”
Genea changed the subject. “How is your ankle?”
“My ankle?” Xena looked down at her foot and wriggled it. There was a twinge of pain as she did so. “I'd forgotten about it. Why?”
“Your steps are uneven. You limp when you walk.”
Xena was impressed. Despite her disadvantage, Genea could see more than a sighted person could. “It's nothing.”
“Is it going to slow you down?”
“Slow me down?” Xena laughed. “This is nothing more than a mere inconvenience. It would take more than that.”
“What are we going to do?”
“We? There is no ‘we'. I have forced my presence on you, so don't you forget that.”
“All right. Have it your own way. How are you going to get out of the city?”
That was a good question. Without physically fighting her way through the city, past hundreds of soldiers and make her way across open ground to get picked off by archers, there weren't a lot of options.
“I could walk out the gates with you.”
“I am not getting you involved in this. If they even suspect you of helping me your life will be forfeit.”
“Don't you trust me?”
“Genea,” Xena grabbed the woman's shoulders, “this is not a game. Your blindness is not going to save you from them.”
“And I'm the only one who can get you out of here!” Genea snapped. “Everyone treats me like an imbecile!”
“I will not calm down! Why do they think I'm useless?”
“I said nothing about useless–”
“No, but you were thinking it. ‘Poor old Genea. Poor dear. She's blind so she can't help.' I just wish someone would trust me.”
“Genea, I trust you.”
“No you don't!”
“Oh, yes I do. If I didn't, you wouldn't have to worry about your husband coming home.” Xena left the subtle threat hanging, letting some menace seep into her voice.
Genea stopped ranting. “Oh.”
“Yes, oh.” Xena stepped closer and let her voice soften. “The safest place for you to be is here. When I escape it may come down to fighting my way out. I can't afford–”
“…to have me along and getting in the way.”
“Exactly.” She had thought along the line of getting hurt or, more likely, die. “Look, let's get some sleep and we'll discuss it again in the morning.” By that time, Xena knew, she would be well on her way back to her army.
It took some considerable time before Xena was able to make a move. Genea didn't sleep well and every whispered sound stopped Xena from leaving. She had to make sure the woman was well and truly asleep.
There was still the occasional citizen out on the street, probably on his way home from a night at the inn, so her chances were good on entering the inn. Her weapons were there and she knew she would need them at some point. Not that being weaponless worried her. She could kill a man with her hands in a dozen or so ways and not even catch her breath. Still, the weapons were a part of her, extensions of her arms that dealt a death blow quickly and efficiently.
Xena rose slowly, stopping every now and then to listen for Genea's movements. When she thought it was safe, she carefully opened the door and stepped out. For good measure Xena waited in a nearby alcove, watching the door for Genea's appearance.
The sound of boots forced Xena into the deeper shadows, to become a wraith in the night. The six soldiers passed her unaware of how close they came to dying where they stood.
Satisfied Genea was sound asleep Xena stepped out of the alcove and onto the street. She pulled the cloak hard against her body and dipped her head to put her face in shadow. Apollonia was not a city she visited often, so her knowledge of the city was not good. However, her instincts had proven time and again that her sense of direction was better than most.
A drunken citizen staggered along the path she was taking, bouncing from obstacle to obstacle in his bid to get home. Xena's keen hearing picked up the sound of footsteps approaching. She grabbed the drunk and put his arm over her shoulder.
“Who…wh.. are you?” he slurred.
“I'm your wife. Don't tell me you've forgotten already?” She pulled him closer and closed her mind to his stench.
“My… wife…? An'... whe...where are we…”
“Home, of course. You asked me earlier to come and get you.”
“Ho, there! Stop!”
Xena pulled up and the drunk stumbled.
“What are you doing out so late?” the guard asked.
“I'm taking my husband home,” Xena replied, lifting her voice from her normal low register.
“Is that true, citizen?”
“Aye…,” he said, right before he threw up over Xena's shoes.
“Get him home.”
“That I will, sir.” Xena walked away with the drunk's arm firmly held and rolled her eyes. She just had to pick a man who couldn't hold his liquor. The soldiers moved off and she breathed a sigh of relief. When the man sounded like he was about throw up again she dumped him in a nearby barrel. “Clean yourself up,” she muttered.
Xena moved quickly toward the town square. Once or twice she had to hide as soldiers went about their business. It was a busy night and it seemed they were intent on finding Raven.
Finally, the inn came into view and she breathed a sigh of relief. It would be good to get into clothes that were familiar to her, even if she didn't wear them often. When she opened the door the light from inside poured over the street like spilt wine. The sound of raucous laughter filtered out into the silence.
Xena stepped inside and closed the door. Despite the danger of a loose fugitive there was no lack of off duty soldiers lounging around and having an ale. She slowly maneuvered herself along the wall toward the stairs and her room. There was movement either side of her.
“Don't move!” The two words were whispered sharply.
She looked from one man to the other on either side of her. While taking them on wasn't a problem, fighting the rest of the room was. For now she would have to do as they said. “What do you want?” Her voice was low and quiet.
“Up the stairs… quietly.”
She felt a jab in her side and she did as the man asked. There were a number of curious looks directed at them as they went upstairs. Xena did her best to allay their fears by smiling down at the patrons. Her smile dropped once she was out of sight of onlookers, and her face darkened. They stopped at the door to her room and she looked from side to side.
Xena would make her move on the other side of the door. Whether there were two or twelve, she was not going to allow them to take her. Her body tensed for battle as she reached for the handle and slowly opened the door.
There were half a dozen men, all of them staring at her as she entered the room. No one made a move until the door closed. With the click of the catch they dropped down on one knee. “My Lord,” they said solemnly.
Xena took another look at the men surrounding her. One or two seemed vaguely familiar, but she couldn't put names to their faces. “What are you doing here?”
“To help you escape, my Lord,” said the eldest man. “I am Tranxis from General Scythos's group.”
“Wait! My Lord, this is not of his doing. General Graxion felt it was necessary–”
“Does he think I'm incapable of looking after myself?” There was silence in the room and the soldiers glanced at one another. “Well?”
“My Lord,” Tranxis said, “he is concerned for your welfare. He did not want you to fall to this trifling adventure at the hands of the Apollonians.”
“Trifle?” Xena walked over to him and grabbed him by his shirt. She roughly pulled him to his feet and shook him. “This was no ‘trifling' matter. It was as important to me as the campaign.” She gaze swept over the remaining men. “What of the girl?”
“Safe, my Lord. Brachius and the healer are escorting her back to the army.”
Xena felt some tension leave her. She hadn't been aware of the unease but as soon as she heard the good news her body relaxed. “How many of you are there?”
“We are all here, my Lord.”
She had six soldiers to take care of. Before, her plan had been easy. Slip silently out through the gates in the middle of the night. If that proved to be impossible then she could just as easily go over the wall. Now she had others to take into consideration and it made her job harder. Which ever plan she came up with was now six times more complicated.
“Let's all get some rest. We leave before dawn. Tranxis, you take the first watch.” Xena walked over to her belongings and took them to a quiet corner. She sat down and opened up her bedroll. What she really wanted was her hunting clothes but that was not possible. She really liked that outfit. It was incredibly soft, silent and very flexible. All that remained was the dress she arrived in Apollonia in. It was either that or the shift underneath her cloak.
“My Lord.” The voice belonged to a young man Xena estimated to be still in his teens. “If it pleases you.” He handed over a pile of cloth.
“Where did you get this?” The lad's head dropped and his feet scuffed the floor.
“Next door, my Lord.” He looked up at her. “I didn't kill him. He was asleep.”
“Thank you.” She sniffed the garments and reeled at the odor. When she reached the army the first thing she would do would be to have a bath and scrub off the stench. “Let's all get some rest.” While her soldiers slept she would be looking for a means of escape.
* * *
Xena felt the hand on her arm. She grabbed it and forcefully bent it backwards. There was a harsh intake of breath and a whispered “My Lord.” Immediately she let go.
“Don't sneak up on me like that,” she growled.
“I'm sorry. It's nearing dawn, my Lord.”
“Gather your belongings. We move now.” Xena stood and stretched out her long body. She was eager to see Gabrielle, but there was a long road between her and her heart's desire. Despite her own immense skills, she knew that anything could go wrong. There was always that element of the unknown that could play into the scheme of things and tip the scales away from her.
“Tranxis, gather Brachius's belongings. We leave nothing behind.” She wrapped her bedroll and tied it tightly. “Secure everything. I want no noise.” She had given some thought to their escape and in her mind there seemed only one option. Through the main gate.
“My Lord.” The young soldier, Damnian, approached her hesitantly. “There may be another way.”
“And how do you know what I'm thinking?” she demanded.
“I do not presume such a thing, my Lord.”
Xena smiled. The boy was smart “What is it?”
“There may be a way out near the stables. I looked around when I arrived. The stable roof is very close to the city wall. We may be able to get over the wall that way.”
“And the guards?”
“One at the corner and another about twenty paces from the stables. But that was during the day. I do not know how many there are for the night.”
Xena considered it. Even if there were a handful of guards, it would be less than what they would encounter at the main gate. “Where are the stables?”
“Let me show you, my Lord.”
There wasn't a lot of time to make a decision. Sunrise was approaching rapidly. “Let's go.” If the opportunity for escape presented itself, she would take it.
* * *
She could smell the stables long before they reached them, although the odor from the clothes she wore presented a barrier to her keen senses. As the young soldier had said, the roof was close to the wall, and while she could easily negotiate the distance, her men would take a bit more planning.
“Secure the stables,” she whispered. “Keep out of sight.” Xena left them to have a look at the wall herself. There were two guard stations, each one a hundred paces from the next. The stables sat roughly in the middle and would leave their escape exposed. She checked the guard closest to them and could hear the gruff snore from the ground. The second station was silent. Xena found a pebble and flicked it into the small cubicle. She could see no stirring inside. Was it empty or was the guard asleep? The man could very well return at a moment's notice.
With that in mind, she headed back to her men.
“Xena,” came a quiet voice in the dark.
She lowered her stance ready for a fight. Had her plan already been thwarted before she even had a chance to carry it out?
Xena relaxed. Besides her own men knew who she was, there was only one person it could be. ”What are you doing here?” she hissed.
“Take me with you.”
“I'm sorry, I can't.”
“But you don't know what it's like here. I have to get out.”
Xena could hear the panicked tone in Genea's voice. She grabbed her arm and steered her into the stables. “I'm going over the wall. How am I supposed to get you over it without arousing suspicion?”
“I don't know. You're the one who has all the plans.” Genea fidgeted as she spoke.
“It's too dangerous this way. One sound and we're all doomed.”
“You mean your men.”
Xena smiled. There was no fooling this woman.
Xena held up her hand for Damnian to be quiet. She pondered the dilemma. While she herself couldn't just walk out the front gate, maybe Genea could… with some help, of course. “When is your husband due home?”
“By my reckoning, tomorrow. It could be any time.”
“Damnian, escort Genea home and stay with her. When you think there's enough activity at the front gate escort her out. We'll meet up… well, you know where.”
Genea smiled. “Thank you,” she whispered.
Xena pulled Damnian aside. “Watch her. I don't think she'll betray us but I don't want to take that chance. If the husband turns up you know what to do, otherwise she takes only what she can carry, you got me? Do whatever is necessary to get out without a fight.”
“My Lord.” Damnian slapped his fist on his chest.
“Now, Gen… where is she?” Xena looked around the now empty stable. “Hades! Go find her!”
Damnian left at a run.
Xena heard Genea's voice call out. She silently signaled her men to spread out, arms at the ready. It seemed that Genea couldn't be trusted after all.
“Who goes there?” Xena heard someone call. She assumed that Genea had gotten the attention of one of the tower guards.
“I'm sorry, I'm lost and I can't see.”
“Of course you can't see, woman! It's still dark!”
“No, I'm blind and I seem to have lost my way.”
Xena listened to the conversation with interest. Maybe Genea wasn't going to betray her.
“Please! I have to get home! Couldn't you at least help me to the city square? I know my way from there!”
“I can't leave my post!”
“Would you want your wife wandering outside by herself without any way to get home?”
Xena held her breath. Would the guard help her? She moved slowly toward the harnesses and retrieved some rope. She signaled her men to move quietly toward the exit. If Genea succeeded in drawing away the guard they would only have a few minutes to execute their escape.
Xena heard the guard climb down from his post. The conversation dropped in volume.
“I can't be away long from this post or I'll end up in shackles. Come on, and be quick about it.”
“Wait! You'll have to guide me.”
Xena heard the scuff of boots recede and she tentatively looked outside. She caught the faint outline of the two figures walking away. She waved her arm and her men swept past her toward the wall.
“Damnian, once everyone is over the wall I'll throw back the rope. Make sure everything is back where it was. I want no evidence of our passing.”
“But where will I find the woman?”
Xena only hoped that Genea thought of that. “Let's hope she's somewhere near the square and you find each other. If you have no luck then you have no choice but to leave her behind.”
“But, My Lord, you promised her!”
“I know that, soldier, but if she makes a plan without consulting me then it's her responsibility to find you.”
“But…” Damnian closed his mouth.
“Move out.” Xena trotted outside and listened for the second guard. He seemed to be still asleep; the boisterous snoring coming from the tower was loud and steady.
The darkness was running out as the first color of pre-dawn touched the sky. Xena climbed up onto the stable roof and vaulted to the top of the wall. She dropped down the other side to the ground. It was then that she felt the sharp twinge in her ankle. But it was more than a mere inconvenience this time. It was going to be a serious impediment. She shook her head and focused on the wall. Swiftly she jerked the rope and wound it around her hand to hold it steady.
It took a moment or two for her to feel the rope go taut and the first soldier to appear at the top of the wall. Quickly, one followed another until all were accounted for. Without waiting for any delay she threw the rope over the wall and signaled for her men to head for the nearby forest. She trotted up behind them, her eyes casting a glance over her shoulder. The soldier had returned and was already climbing the ladder to his post.
“Hurry,” she whispered, and tried to push her men into a run. The pain rolled over her in waves every time her injured foot hit the ground. They were about ten feet from cover when the soldier reached his post. She dove for the undergrowth the last few feet and allowed herself to relax into a lazy roll. But the bushes were unforgiving, immediately latching onto her injured ankle and forcing it sideways. Xena bit her lip hard and tasted the blood in her mouth.
“Are you all right, my Lord?” Tranxis appeared out of the fading darkness.
“Fine. Let's get back to the others.” She could feel Tranxis's eyes on her and she was forced to grin and bear her discomfort.
Xena allowed her men to lead the way. Their pace was an easy trot and she was able to compensate for the injury. Her mind wandered to Gabrielle and their upcoming meeting. It would seem that neither of them were up to anything more than a handshake, at least for a little while. Xena had already decided that she would try to talk Gabrielle into staying with her while she recovered. That would then give her time to convince her lover to give up her persona as Raven. After all, the news of her capture would be all over Greece soon and her anonymity would be ruined. But would Gabrielle accept that? Her lover was a fiercely independent woman, just like she was, and to give up that independence wasn't something that either of them would do lightly.
Then, of course, there was a purely selfish reason why she wanted Gabrielle to stay. She was tired of making love to the woman once every three or so months. She wanted her every night. She wanted to be able to reach out and find her there instead of having nothing more than an empty bed covered in her scent. Xena hated to admit it but she was sick of the game. She wanted more.
“Watch out for that tree.”
Xena pulled up abruptly before she ran headlong into a trunk. She glared at Tranxis and continued on her way. She chose to ignore his gentle chuckle as she passed him. “How much further?”
“Not far, my Lord. However, the healer is with the girl.”
Xena stopped. “What are you talking about?”
“Nothing, my Lord. Your broken ankle will have to wait.” Tranxis took off at a trot, leaving Xena in his wake. She shook her head and followed him into the deepening shadows of the forest.
* * *
They finally reached the hunting party on the far side of the city. The sun had risen and boded a fine day. Was it a sign? Would things now go smoothly?
“General! You have disappointed me!” Xena growled. She stepped up to him and looked him in the eye. “You were told to move the army toward Chalcis .”
“They are, my Lord.”
“Don't play games with me! You had your orders!” She prodded his chest sharply. “I had everything under control!”
“My Lord…” Graxion took a deep breath and stopped speaking.
“How can I trust you when you disobey an order?”
“You can't, my Lord.”
“Get out of my sight. I'll decide your fate later.”
“Shall I assemble the men for departure?”
“We wait until Damnian arrives.”
“Where is he, my Lord?”
“He's on a special mission. He'll be coming through the front gate.” Xena looked in the direction of Apollonia. She hoped the wait wouldn't be long. Her foot ached. There would be a march ahead, which she was not looking forward to because she had to appear unconcerned about her injury. She was sure that word had already spread through her men about her foot and her stalwart nature wouldn't allow her to show her pain. Sometimes she hated that reputation.
Xena found a log and sat down for the wait. She took a deep breath and let it out slowly. The pain eased as she shifted her weight.
“My Lord.” Graxion stood before her. “Do you wish me to send for the healer?”
“It's fine.” She looked at her general and then dropped her head. “You have put me in a very difficult position. What am I supposed to do with you?”
“I perfectly understand–”
“Do you? You know I can't let this go unpunished.”
“I will accept whatever you decide.”
“And yet you came after me knowing that I had to punish you?”
“My Lord, I couldn't let you go alone. Without you, the army would fall into disarray. They follow you, not me. I don't have your keen military mind or your charisma. I'm just an old man who has seen too much of war.”
“Not at all, Graxion. If that's all I saw in you, you wouldn't be my general. However, you must know that my orders cannot be questioned. If you did it, what's to stop others from doing the same thing? I must have order in my army.”
“Do you know my fate, my Lord?”
“You're awfully eager to find out. Do you know something that I don't?”
“No, my Lord, but it will give me time to come up with a speech for my men.”
Xena chuckled. “You will be broken down to the rank of Lieutenant. How about I put you under the command of Maltus?” She saw him turn white. “Too cruel?”
“My Lord, if it pleases you, if I must return to the ranks I ask that I be assigned to your guard.”
“That sounds very much like a reward, not a punishment.”
“It would be, my Lord. I wish to serve you.”
“Getting too old to be a foot soldier?”
“I think so.”
“I won't make it easy for you.” Graxion shook his head. “You do realize that you will be under the command of Brachius?”
Graxion thought for a moment. “He is a good man, my Lord. It will be an honor.”
“Fine. Then it's settled.” Xena turned at the sound of ‘ho'. “It looks like Damnian is on his way. I'll be glad to see Gabrielle again.”
“Glad, my Lord?” Graxion grinned at her. “And I'm sure the healer will be welcome as well.”
Xena took a friendly swipe at him. “Get the men assembled, Lieutenant .”
“Aye, my Lord.”
Xena watched the old man leave. She hated that she had to take action, but she had no choice. In her wilder days she would have killed him and be done with it, but she was loathe to waste such a valuable commodity. Somehow she had to figure out a way to restore him to general without looking like she had backed down.
She sat down against a tree and waited for Genea and Damnian. Her foot throbbed painfully and she could feel the swelling and the tightness of the boot. She closed her eyes for a moment and allowed her mind to work its magic. The pain flowed through her and filled her but she knew her stubbornness wouldn't allow it to overwhelm her. The pain receded and pounded in the background of her mind.
Xena opened her eyes and studied the men around her. Some were busy saddling up horses while others stood guard. Graxion moved amongst his men, slapping a hand on a shoulder here and there. His gaze caught hers and he smiled. She really hated this position he put her in.
“We're ready, my Lord.”
She looked up at her new lieutenant. “Good. You can send them off in groups of no more than four. We'll meet up outside the tavern. Make sure they know no drinking until everyone has arrived.” He extended his hand down to her and she took it. She was tired and he knew it.
“Not much longer, my Lord.”
Right now she wanted a bed, a bath and Gabrielle, and not necessarily in that order. Oh, and Jantius…
“How is Gabrielle?”
“Not good, but the healer was giving her his full attention.”
“He'd better,” she growled. Graxion chuckled. “What's so funny, lieutenant?”
“You are, my Lord.” His hand came down on her shoulder. “Love suits you, Xena,” he whispered.
“Yes, well, don't let it get around. I have a reputation to keep.”
“It's a secret I'll keep to my grave.”
“I have a feeling this is a badly-kept secret already.”
“Going to rescue her proved that, my Lord.”
She couldn't argue with him. She had made her feelings clear by going on such a reckless mission. Now all she had to do was to convince Gabrielle to stay with her.
“Do you think she'll finally understand?”
Graxion voiced her own inner thoughts. “I hope so, my friend. I hope so.”
* * *
Xena watched her men leave in groups of three or four, spaced about five minutes apart. The plan was to rendezvous outside the inn. She made it clear that no one was to enter the establishment until she had arrived in the hope of curtailing any trouble involving too much drink.
She watched Genea and Damnian get closer, finally standing when they were within a mere fifty feet. Graxion was hesitant to leave her alone but she insisted that, despite his demotion, his experience and leadership was needed to keep the men in line.
“Any trouble?” Xena looked at the new arrivals with concern.
“No, my Lord.”
“What about your husband?” Xena asked.
“I… I'm not sure. He is due home soon.”
“Let's hope we don't meet him on the road then. Let's get going.” Xena mounted her borrowed horse and waited for Genea and Damnian to mount the second.
She set a healthy pace because she was eager to see Gabrielle. If she had been more alert she would have read the body language of the large man in a cart coming toward them.
“Ho! You! What are you doing with my wife!”
Xena took an instant dislike to the man. He was fat, he was ugly and he was mean. “She has asked to travel with us, sir.”
“Get off that horse, woman!” He was already in motion getting down from the cart when he spoke. When Genea didn't move he grabbed her and started to pull. Damnian tried to hold on but the man yanked hard and she fell to the ground.
“Now just one minute...” Xena leapt off the horse in one swift movement.
“Stay out of this, woman. It's none of your concern.” He lifted his hand ready to strike Genea, but his hand was held fast in a vice-like grip.
“Don't touch her.”
“She's my wife and I'll do as I please.” His foot struck out and caught her in the stomach. “Try to run away from me, eh?” He spat at her and prepared to give her another kick.
“I… said… Don't… touch… her.” Xena said menacingly. The man stopped and looked at her. “Damnian, help Genea back onto the horse, will you?” Xena kept eye contact with the man while Damnian did as he was ordered. “Go on ahead. I'll catch up.”
“Please don't hurt him,” Genea pleaded.
“I won't hurt him,” Xena repeated. She watched the horse trot off down the road and waited for it to be out of sight. “Now, you seem to like to hurt women who can't hit back.”
He held up his hands. “It's my right to treat her as I see fit. I don't want any trouble with you.” She knew he could sense the danger emanating from her. “I just want my wife back.”
“I'm afraid that's not possible. She doesn't wish to live with you any more.”
“Then I'll get the soldiers onto you.”
“I was afraid you were going to say that.” She took a step toward him.
“Stop! You promised her you wouldn't hurt me.” He moved backward as Xena advanced.
“Oh, you won't feel a thing.” Her fingers shot out like vipers and struck his neck. He fell to his knees and clawed at his throat. Blood dripped from his nose and his eyes widened in fear.
Xena leaned in close and whispered. “Tell Hades Xena says ‘hello'.” His mouth opened in surprise a moment before he dropped. Xena kicked his body into the ditch. She tied her horse to the cart and she climbed into the seat. As she turned the cart and headed off in the direction of the inn she imagined the man gasping his last breath.
* * *
Xena opened her eyes at the sound of smacking lips. “Gabrielle?” she asked softly.
“Where am I?” her voice was broken and hoarse.
Xena reached for a flask of water. “Here, drink this.” She dribbled the water into Gabrielle's parched mouth. “Welcome back.”
“Have I been somewhere?”
“You had a fever for the past four days.” Xena tried to keep the concern out of her voice, but Gabrielle opened her eyes and looked at her.
“Have you been here all that time?”
“I have an army to look after. What makes you think I have time to wait for you to wake up?” Gabrielle stared at her. “All right. You caught me.”
There was a clearing of a throat outside the tent.
Graxion entered with a tray and placed it next to Xena. “My Lord.” He bowed and left.
“What happened to him?”
“He's been demoted. He's been a bad boy.”
“Gabrielle, I have to maintain discipline otherwise everyone will think they can do as they please.” Xena reached over to the platter and lifted a piece of fruit. “Here, try this.” She placed the fruit on Gabrielle's lips and held it there while she ate. As much as she tried to hide it, she knew she had an indulgent smile on her face.
“What's so funny?”
“You must be feeling better.”
“I don't remember much. Where are we?”
“We moved you from the inn to my tent. You've been here for four days. I thought it wise not to move while you were…” Xena's words trailed off. She didn't want to think of the word ‘dying'. It would have killed her to lose Gabrielle.
Gabrielle's gaze skimmed over Xena's body, from her head to her toes. “What happened to you?”
Xena looked at her bandaged foot. “Nothing to worry about.”
“Nothing?” Gabrielle raised an eyebrow.
“Just a small sprain.”
“She broke it.”
Gabrielle looked up at the sound of the unknown voice. “Broke it?” Xena just shrugged. “And you are?”
“Gabrielle, this is Genea. Genea this is Gabrielle.”
“Hello, I've heard a lot about you,” Genea responded.
“Really?” Gabrielle's voice had a hard edge to it. “And I haven't heard anything about you.” She glared at Xena.
“Well, you were unconscious at the time.” Xena felt the heat of Gabrielle's stare. She was not happy. Xena felt her heart flip over with the realization that her lover was jealous. “Genea helped me and my men escape from Apollonia.”
“Thank you, Genea,” Gabrielle said humbly. “I am indebted to you.”
“No, I should thank Xena. She has set me free.”
“Are you ready to go?”
“Yes. I wanted to say goodbye, and meet your Gabrielle of course.”
The old man appeared at the tent flap. “Yes my Lord?”
“Escort Genea to her horse. Make sure she gets to my mother safely.”
“Aye, my Lord.” He stepped over to Genea and placed her hand on his arm. “This way, my lady.” Genea giggled and allowed Graxion to guide her.
When she had left Gabrielle looked at Xena. “Well?”
“She was being abused by her husband. I couldn't leave it at that.”
“Let me guess. You showed him the error of his ways.”
“Something like that.”
“And she's blind.”
“How did you know?”
“She didn't look me in the eye.”
“Maybe she was afraid to.” Xena held up her hands and got the expected swat from Gabrielle.
“Do I have anything to worry about?”
“Never.” Xena leaned in and gently kissed her on the lips. “Surely what I went through convinced you of that.”
“I told you not to rescue me.”
“And what would you have done in my place?” Gabrielle remained silent. “I thought so.” She didn't really, but it was nice to know. Xena reached for another slice of fruit. “Now we have to get you well.” She teased Gabrielle's lips with the juicy sliver.
“Are you in a hurry?”
“No. My men are off harassing the locals for a while. I'm busy elsewhere.”
“You may lose your army over this.”
“Don't you worry about that.” But Xena saw that she did. “Do you want me to send you back to my mother as well? I can do that if you want.” She hoped not. She wanted Gabrielle with her in the hope of convincing her to stay.
“Do you want me to go?”
“Of course not. I want to here, but that's me being selfish. If you want no distractions then maybe you should go with Genea.”
“What do you want, Xena?” Gabrielle asked quietly.
“Me? If I could, I want you to stay with me. No more Raven, Gabrielle. I think you know that's not possible now. Your disguise has been discovered and your leg will take a while to heal. I'm… asking you please stay with me.”
Gabrielle raised her hand and stroked Xena's cheek. “You're probably right.” She grinned. “Did you say the position of general is vacant?”
“Oh, boy. My men have no idea what they're about to face.”
“I love you, Xena.”
“And I love you, Gabrielle.” Xena smiled. “Now and always.”
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