Shadows, part 5
Special Disclaimer: Just to let y'all know, there's a bit more violence in this part than there has been so far. It is a war, after all, and people sometimes get hurt in wars. Still, I don't think the violence here is any worse than what has been depicted on the show. That said, I should also let you know that the story takes a rather dark turn in this installment. So consider yourselves warned.
It was late afternoon, and the burnished crimson sun was beginning to sink below the horizon. The skies had remained clear throughout the day, promising an exceptionally chilly night. In a clearing near the center of a sprawling military camp, several soldiers were busy constructing massive bonfires designed to burn through the night. Most of the men were oblivious to the presence of a tall, imposing woman warrior, observing them from inside her tent.
"This stuff is actually lighter than I thought it would be." Metal links jangled as Gabrielle shifted her shoulders beneath the new armor that Xena had picked out for her. Like many of the soldiers in this army, the bard's protective gear was made of light chain mail. Gabrielle's covered her chest and back, but left her arms free, allowing her the mobility she needed to effectively wield her fighting staff.
Xena turned from her place at the entrance to their tent and smiled wistfully at the fidgeting bard. She wasn't at all sure she liked seeing Gabrielle like this, outfitted in the accoutrements of war. Xena had never wanted her friend to experience the horrors of war, had never wanted the bard's youthful idealism to fade. Somehow though, they always seemed to wind up in the thick of things like this. First, there had been the war in Thessaly, where Gabrielle had nearly died. Then, the battle with the Horde, where Gabrielle had seen the darkness in Xena first-hand, when the warrior had temporarily reverted to her old warlord self. And, of course, Britannia. Xena stomach twisted into knots every time she thought of Britannia, where everything had gone so horribly wrong.
"Hey, what's that look for?" Gabrielle drew closer to the moody warrior and slipped her arms around Xena's neck.
Shutting her eyes, Xena rested her chin on top of Gabrielle's fair head. Haltingly, she opened her heart to the bard, allowing Gabrielle to see her at her most vulnerable.
"I'm so sorry for everything, Gabrielle. For all the times I took you for granted. For Britannia. For Hope." Xena paused, feeling Gabrielle stiffen in her arms at the mention of the child she had lost. "I'm sorry I wasn't there for you when you needed me the most."
Gabrielle tried to pull away, wanting to hide her tears, but Xena held her tightly, refusing to let go. After a moment, she stopped struggling and buried her face into Xena's chest, her body shaking with sobs as grief overwhelmed her. She'd never mourned for her daughter, not really, and now, a tide of pent-up emotions poured out of her. Through it all, Xena simply held her and waited for the tears to slow.
"I wanted to love her," Gabrielle hiccupped, her words muffled against Xena's chest.
"I know you did," Xena whispered back, her heart aching for the bard and for her part in her friend's sadness. "I wish I could go back and change it all. Fix it so that we never set foot on Britannia's shores. But I can't." Gabrielle started to interrupt, but Xena shushed her and went on, determined to say what needed to be said. "And I just wanted you to know how sorry I am, and that none of it was your fault."
Gabrielle fought back a fresh wave of tears, and she lifted her head to gaze gravely into Xena's eyes, seeing the haunted expression there. She brushed a single tear away from the warrior's cheek.
"I don't blame you either, Xena," she said honestly. "We both made mistakes that we'll have to live with for the rest of our lives. I know things between us were pretty bad for awhile there, but I want you to know that I never stopped believing in our friendship."
Xena's eyes closed and her throat worked soundlessly as she fought to choke back the sobs that were welling in her chest. After everything she had done, forcing her friend to abandon her infant daughter, turning her back on her after Solan's death, and the nightmarish moment at the Amazon village, even after all of that, Gabrielle still had faith in her. Though she knew she didn't deserve it, Gabrielle's forgiveness was like a lifeline for the warrior, and she clung to it desperately. She opened her eyes and smiled sadly at the bard.
"I love you, Gabrielle."
"I love you too, Xena."
Gabrielle laid her cheek against the warrior's chest again, and they shared a quiet moment, temporarily oblivious to the sounds of men preparing for war outside their tent. It felt good to finally let go of a little bit of the grief that she'd been bottling up inside herself, Gabrielle thought. Idly, she wondered if Xena's recent bout of nightmares was rooted in her guilt over what had happened in Britannia, and she made a mental note to ask the warrior about it later.
"Hey, what brought all this on, anyway?" Gabrielle asked suddenly, giving Xena's waist a little squeeze.
Xena exhaled thoughtfully, her breath ruffling the bard's hair. "By this time tomorrow, we'll probably be at war. I just wanted you to know... .in case."
This time, Gabrielle succeeded in pulling away from the warrior's embrace, and her eyes flashed defiantly.
"In case of what, exactly?" she asked, her tone indicating that Xena needed to tread very carefully.
Xena pulled on her earlobe, squirming a bit under the bard's glare. "Uh, well, you know. Sometimes things happen in battle," she explained lamely.
Gabrielle stared at her, not believing what she was hearing. Xena never doubted herself heading into battle. Slightly irrational anger stirred within her, and she took a menacing step towards the warrior. Leaning forward, she poked Xena's chest, just above the ridges of her breastplate.
"Don't. You. Dare." Gabrielle jabbed her finger into Xena's chest with each word. "Nothing is going to happen to either one of us tomorrow, so don't even think about it."
During the time that she had spent traveling with Gabrielle, Xena had learned when to give in to an argument. This was definitely one of those times. Indignant green eyes were still blazing dangerously at her, so Xena decided a little distraction was in order. She gave the bard her most charming, lopsided grin and then pulled Gabrielle in for a long, heartfelt kiss. Gabrielle's fingers roamed a bit, just beneath her ribcage, and Xena started to laugh, causing the bard to pull her head back and arch a blonde eyebrow.
"That tickles," Xena explained, her eyes twinkling.
"Oh yeah? Good," Gabrielle, shot back, a grin spreading across her face despite her best efforts to hide it. "Tell you what. Let's drop the whole big, bad warrior princess routine, just for tonight, okay?" Now it was Xena's turn to raise a dark eyebrow. "No, wait, listen," Gabrielle continued, cutting off the warrior's sharp retort. "Tonight, let's just go to the party and have some fun."
"I am having fun," Xena replied seductively.
It was Gabrielle's turn to giggle uncontrollably as Xena explored a particularly sensitive spot just behind her left ear. The giggles turned to small, unintelligible groans as the warrior's lips trailed down to the juncture between her neck and shoulder, while her hands simultaneously slid up the bard's back, drawing her closer. Gabrielle closed her eyes and lost herself in the sensation, momentarily wondering how far they would take this tonight. Of course, Jared picked that particular time to wander into their tent unannounced.
"Hey, Gabrielle, I...uh, oh gods, I'm sorry," the young man nearly tripped over his own feet in his haste to back out of the tent as distinctly annoyed blue eyes snapped up to glare at him.
Xena started to laugh at Jared's hasty exit, and Gabrielle couldn't help joining in.
"It's not funny, Xena. He's a nice guy," Gabrielle said, once she had regained her composure. Xena rolled her eyes, indicating what she thought of Jared.
"He's nice," Gabrielle repeated stubbornly.
"Yeah, yeah. He's a real sweetheart," Xena drawled, slipping an arm around Gabrielle's shoulders and leading her out of the tent.
The sun had dipped below the horizon and the moon had not yet risen, but the camp was bathed in the light from several blazing bonfires with flames that stretched towards the sky. The entire army was gathered in the clearing, it seemed, and the space was teeming with people. Men and women sang songs of war as they passed cups of ale and flasks filled with sweet wine amongst each other. Some danced around the fire, participating in an ancient ritual to ask the blessing of their gods. The light from the flames cast long, distorted shadows across the frozen ground. Xena saw Siobahn outlined before the central blaze, a mug of ale in her hand, raised in toast.
"Xena, over here," Siobahn called out, catching sight of the tall warrior.
Kieran emerged from the throng of people surrounding their commander, and he pressed a full wineskin into Xena's hand. She smiled at him and drank deeply, tasting the sweet wine as it crawled over her tongue. She offered it to Gabrielle, who sniffed the liquid suspiciously before taking a tiny sip.
"Quite a party, Siobahn," Xena shouted into the woman's ear to be heard above the raucous din.
"When the people of Eire decide to celebrate, we do it with a bang. Isn't that right, my friends?" Siobahn cried out to the people around her, getting a deafening cheer in response.
Xena examined Siobahn closely and noticed her bright eyes and dilated pupils, along with the rosy glow to her cheeks. She was already drunk, as were most of the others. Xena sighed; it was going to be a long night. Across from her, standing near one of the other bonfires, she saw Gereth's lumbering form, and he smiled at her, exposing rotting teeth and he raised his cup in salute. Xena gave him a tolerant grin and lifted her hand in response. Jared sidled up next to them, his cheeks burning red for an entirely different reason. Gabrielle greeted the young man warmly, but Xena ignored him as she probed the darkness for one face in particular, but Dalton was nowhere in sight, and she wondered where he'd disappeared to.
Outside the wide circle of light cast by the raging bonfires, Dalton watched, shrouded in darkness. He had no use for these deluded people or for their silly revelry. He snorted in contempt, watching the dancers circle the fires. Fools, all of them. Their puny gods didn't matter; Caesar and his approaching legions didn't matter, for Dalton knew that his master would sweep them all aside with his awesome power. Movement rustled to his right, and he crouched, hand on the hilt of his dagger, ready to spill the blood of anyone who approached. A tall, lanky man with stringy, shoulder-length blond hair drew near, watery blue eyes searching the shadows. Dalton relaxed and straightened up, the motion catching the blond man's attention.
"My lord," Brandt stepped forward and knelt before Dalton. "They suspect nothing."
One by one, more men and women emerged out of the darkness, all kneeling before their priest. When the last man had stepped forth, they numbered almost two dozen, and Dalton smiled at them in cold disdain. They were sheep, most of them, but Dalton's master required followers, so the burly priest was forced to put up with them. He stared at Brandt thoughtfully, imagining Siobahn's face when she learned that one of her most trusted men had betrayed her. It was a shame, Dalton thought. He knew Siobahn would never be converted; she wasn't the type to bow to anyone. Oh well, he would soon forget about his doomed cousin once he was installed as the high priest of the one true faith. Dalton laughed, and the sheep laughed with him.
Gabrielle was preoccupied, listening to Kieran as the big warrior told stories about the glorious battles that he had fought in. Jared took the opportunity to inch closer to Xena, who was patiently attempting to go over strategy with Siobahn, and he took a long swallow from his cup of bitter ale to give himself the courage to speak to the intimidating warrior. She was aware of his presence, but Xena decided to let the kid sweat until he had worked up the nerve to say something. She sipped from her wineskin and surveyed the wild festivities around her.
"Xena," Jared leaned over so that he could speak to her without shouting.
The warrior stared at him coolly and waited for him to continue, while Siobahn prudently moved away to give them a bit of privacy. Jared took a deep breath and grimly forged ahead.
"Look, I know that you and Gabrielle are together, and I won't pretend I think that's a good thing. Because I don't. I think you're bad for her." Jared plunged on as Xena continued to regard him with that maddeningly calm gaze. "I'm not going to pursue her or anything, since I know you could rip me apart if you wanted to. But I just wanted to say that the gods themselves won't be able to help you if you hurt her."
Jared finished his speech and stalked off before Xena could say anything, leaving the warrior staring after him in impressed silence. She was amazed to learn that the kid had a backbone. Very few people spoke to her like that and walked away unscathed. From a few feet away, Gabrielle had witnessed the little confrontation and she moved over to stand beside Xena.
"What was that about?" Gabrielle asked, raising her voice over the drunken, out of tune singing.
Xena grinned at her, still amused by Jared's macho display. "He wanted me to know that I'll have to deal with him if I ever hurt you," she replied, blue eyes dancing in the firelight.
Gabrielle grinned back. "Really? That's so sweet," she said, getting the expected eye-rolling from her tall warrior.
Gabrielle slid closer until they were essentially sharing the same space. Emboldened by the wine, she stood on her toes and nibbled the warrior's ear, feeling the earlobe grow hot as Xena blushed furiously.
"You're awfully cute when you're jealous," she confided in Xena's ear, a bit louder than she had intended.
Muffled snickers circulated from the people standing immediately near them, snickers that were quickly silenced by a dire look from the warrior princess. Instantly, those around them scooted a bit further away, not wanting to risk Xena's temper. Xena waited until most everyone's attention had turned elsewhere before she returned her gaze to the bard, noticing Gabrielle's slightly wobbly balance and the empty mug dangling from her hand. She wondered who had given Gabrielle the strong ale.
Gabrielle swayed a little, and she grabbed Xena's arm to steady herself. Mischievous green eyes peered up at the warrior, and she seized the chance to nuzzle Xena's neck, getting a startled squawk from her companion. Xena sighed and decided she didn't care what anyone else thought, and she pulled Gabrielle into a hug, resting her forehead against the bard's so that she could gaze into those luminous green orbs.
"You know, you're awfully cute when you're drunk," Xena told her solemnly, causing the bard to turn a deep pink.
" ‘mnotdrunk," Gabrielle slurred her words slightly, discovering that she was suddenly very sleepy. In fact, she was beginning to suspect that Xena was the only thing keeping her on her feet.
"Mmhmm. How many of these mugs did you have while I was talking to Siobahn?" Xena asked, inspecting Gabrielle's glassy eyes.
"Two," Gabrielle replied confidently, holding up three fingers.
Xena shook her head and laughed fondly. "That's what I thought. C'mon, bard. I think this party is over for you."
She put her arm around Gabrielle's waist, supporting the tipsy bard as she led the way back to their tent. Halfway there, Gabrielle's knees buckled, and Xena scooped her up easily into her arms and carried her the rest of the way. The bard leaned her head on the warrior's shoulder, enjoying the ride. As she neared their tent, Xena saw Brandt slinking around the corner. She frowned, trying to remember if she'd seen the lanky soldier at any time during the party. She didn't think she had, and Xena wondered where he had been. At that moment, Gabrielle mumbled something incoherent, and Xena refocused her attention on the compact blonde in her arms.
"What was that?" she asked, but Gabrielle was quiet and Xena realized that the bard had fallen asleep.
Xena ducked inside the tent and knelt in the center, gently laying Gabrielle down on the furs covering the cold, dirt floor. Raising the bard's upper body, the warrior quickly stripped off Gabrielle's new armor and set it aside, then she turned to unlace and remove her friend's boots. Gabrielle whined in complaint when the frigid air touched her bare feet, but she didn't wake, and Xena laughed softly as she removed her own armor. She knew the bard would have one Hades of a headache in the morning, and she did a quick check of her supplies to make sure she had the herbs to help quell a hangover.
"Xe?" Gabrielle called out softly in her sleep.
"Shh. I'm right here," Xena whispered, slipping beneath the blankets and wrapping her arms around the bard, who snuggled up against her immediately. Within moments, the warrior had joined her companion in a deep, dreamless sleep.
The morning dawned clear and cold, and Xena woke at first light, as usual. Taking care not to wake the sleeping bard, she slid out from under the covers and hurriedly pulled on her boots. Her back ached from spending the night on the ground with Gabrielle sprawled across her, and she smiled ruefully as she stretched her stiff, sore muscles. Outside, she sensed a restless energy as others in the camp started to stir. A scouting report had come in yesterday, and they expected to be facing the Romans by late afternoon.
Xena's expression darkened as she thought about the battle ahead. By now, Caesar definitely knew she was here, and she expected that he would lead the charge of the legions himself. Actually, she was counting on it. Caesar's single-minded obsession with her gave them a tiny advantage, and Xena knew that the arrogant Roman leader wouldn't be able to resist facing her personally. A vicious grin touched her lips, and she was disconcerted to discover that she was almost looking forward to this.
Behind Xena, Gabrielle groaned weakly, reluctantly prying her eyes open and wincing at the pale sunlight streaming into their tent. The bard pulled her knees up to her chest and curled herself into a fetal position, wondering what had possessed her to drink the night before. Her mouth felt like it was stuffed with cotton, her head throbbed painfully, and her stomach heaved every time she even thought about getting up. She squeezed her eyes shut and moaned pitifully again, vaguely aware of Xena moving about the tent. She heard the hushed sound of Xena pouring water into a cup and the dry crackle of herbs as the warrior sprinkled something into the liquid, swirling it gently to mix it.
"Here, drink this. It'll make you feel a little better," Xena knelt beside the dreadfully hungover bard and placed a comforting hand on her shoulder.
Gabrielle shook her head, clamping her jaw tightly as the movement started her stomach doing a series of backflips. She didn't resist when Xena slipped behind her and pulled her into a semi-sitting position, leaning the bard back against her chest.
"C'mon, Gabrielle. I promise this will help," Xena held the cup in front of Gabrielle's nose and urged her to drink.
Well, anything was better than the way she currently felt, Gabrielle reasoned. She drank deeply, tasting the mint that Xena had added to help hide the bitter taste of the medicine. Her queasy stomach rebelled as the liquid hit it, but Gabrielle swallowed hard and managed to keep it down. Doleful green eyes peered abashedly at the warrior.
"I feel awful," Gabrielle groaned.
"Yeah, I'll bet," Xena returned. "You know, you're a pretty wild drunk. I didn't know you even knew how to do those things." Xena looked down at her and gave her a sexy grin, watching Gabrielle's eyes widen and an embarrassed flush creep over her face.
"What things? I didn't. I mean, we didn't... ." Gabrielle stammered, staring at the warrior in mortification.
Xena burst out laughing, unable to keep up the charade. "No, we didn't." she assured the pouting bard. "You passed out before I even got you back to the tent."
"Oh. Well, good. I'm glad nothing happened." Gabrielle said, relieved. She looked up and saw the slightly miffed expression on Xena's face, and she hastily backtracked as realized what she had said. "That's not what I meant. At least not the way it sounded. I mean, it's not like I don't want to... .well, you know." Xena quirked an eyebrow at her, and Gabrielle let out a disgusted sigh, recognizing that she was being teased. "You're impossible."
Xena laughed again and kissed the bard on the forehead. "I'm sorry, I couldn't help myself." She apologized as Gabrielle backhanded her in the ribs.
Gabrielle glared at her, but Xena's grin was infectious and she couldn't help smiling back. "Anyway. What I actually meant before was that when we are finally together, I want to remember it." That earned her a dazzling smile that lit up the warrior's eyes.
Though she was reluctant to leave Xena's embrace, Gabrielle sat up on her own and mentally examined her condition. Her stomach had settled down some; that was good. She tested her head, tilting it from side to side. It still ached, but it wasn't the blinding pain from when she had first woken up. Cautiously, she stood, and she was pleasantly relieved when the world didn't spin around her. Xena and her wonder drugs; the warrior had a remedy for just about everything.
"I guess you're feeling better?" Xena asked, becoming all business when the bard nodded back. "Good. Today's gonna be a long day."
Xena began to dress in her battle armor, and Gabrielle did the same, fidgeting awkwardly as she settled the unfamiliar chain mail over her shoulders. Xena slid her weapons into place and regarded the bard soberly, unable to put off the inevitable any longer.
"I'll be right back," she said. "I'm gonna go find Kieran and have him round up the men. We'll want to be in place long before Caesar reaches us."
Gabrielle nodded quietly, realizing that her best friend had gone into warrior princess mode. Xena exited from the tent, leaving the bard alone. A cold shiver of fear raced down Gabrielle's back, and she frowned, questioning where it had come from. She'd gone into battle plenty of times, and while there was always a certain element of fear, this was different. This was an unreasoning feeling of dread, as if something evil had brushed against her. She shook her head firmly, ignoring the cold fist clenched around her heart. Probably just a side effect of the hangover, she told herself.
She stepped out into the sunlight, and it was like she had been transported to a completely different camp. Gone were the laughing, singing, brashly over-confident soldiers from the previous night. Instead, everyone she saw had looks of grim determination on their faces as they went about their tasks. Everywhere she looked, soldiers in full armor, brimming with weapons, moved about with an air of quiet desperation.
"This is our last stand, Gabrielle." Siobahn had come up beside her, making the bard jump. Grave hazel eyes looked at her. "If we fail, Eire is lost."
"Then we won't fail," Gabrielle told her seriously, believing.
She saw Xena emerge from the armory, with Kieran right behind her. The grizzled lieutenant headed off in a different direction while Xena crossed the camp towards them. The warrior nodded at Siobahn in greeting and turned her full attention to Gabrielle.
"Kieran's gonna come find you when he's got the rest of the men gathered, so be ready. I'm going on ahead now." Xena informed her tersely.
"But..." Gabrielle started to protest.
"No buts, Gabrielle. I need a little time alone before it all starts. Stay with Kieran, for now. You'll be safe with him."
"Xena, I'm not worried about that." Gabrielle said, knowing that the argument was futile.
The warrior gave her a tiny grin. "I know." Blue eyes flicked towards Siobahn, who immediately found something very interesting to look at on the ground. Xena ducked her head and lightly brushed her lips against the bard's. "I'll see you soon," she whispered.
Gabrielle watched Xena walk away and felt that same icy shiver run down her spine. A nagging thought echoed insistently through her mind. Something was wrong here. Her heart screamed at her to run after the solitary warrior and not let Xena out of her sight, but instead, Gabrielle stayed where she was.
"Is everything okay?" Siobahn asked, concerned by the look on the bard's face.
"I'm fine. I just hate war," Gabrielle replied quietly. "Look, you make sure your army is ready when the time comes. Because if you leave Xena hanging alone out there..." she left the thought unfinished, knowing that her point had been made.
"We'll be there," Siobahn promised. She eyed the wooden staff in the bard's hand. "Are you sure you don't want another weapon?"
Gabrielle shook her head. "I don't like swords," she said simply before walking away to join Kieran.
At the edge of the camp, Xena paused, her prickling senses warning her that she was being followed. She knelt and made a show of retying her boot laces as she scanned the scattering of supply tents on the outskirts of the camp, but no one appeared. Straightening, she decided to move on, figuring that whoever was behind her would tip his hand eventually. He's probably waiting until we're a little further out, she thought. She continued on her path.
When the warrior was a mere speck in the distance, Dalton stepped out from his hiding place behind the tents. Not yet, he told himself. Not yet, but soon. The time was drawing near, and he smiled, knowing that his patience would be rewarded.
Once Xena had left the camp far behind, she went on full alert, but her stalker seemed to have disappeared. She listened carefully, searching. Nothing. She shrugged. Maybe you're just being paranoid, she told herself wryly. Still, it was probably a good idea to be cautious. She was bound to start running into Roman scouts soon. She reached the barren, rocky cliff and took a quick look around, making sure that she knew the area thoroughly. She gazed pensively off to the east, where a series of rolling hills obscured her vision. Caesar would come from that direction. Shutting her eyes, Xena envisioned the battle ahead, imagining the mocking, contemptuous look on Caesar's face when he saw her. A savage grin spread across her face as the image in her mind changed and she imagined herself sliding her blade between the Roman leader's ribs and watching that imperious demeanor crumble.
Xena cast a glance back towards the camp and then squinted overhead at the position of the sun. Kieran would be well on his way by now with the rest of her one hundred soldiers. She looked towards the east again and made a decision. Breaking into a light jog, she went off to greet the Romans, alone.
"She's not here, Gabrielle," Kieran said, spreading his hands apart helplessly.
They had reached the cliff a quarter candlemark ago, and Xena was nowhere to be found. Gabrielle paced frantically, trying to figure out what could have happened to the warrior. A terrifying thought entered her mind as she recalled the patrol they'd found murdered two days ago. What if whoever had done that had found Xena? Stop it, Gabrielle, you know Xena can handle herself, her inner voice scolded her.
"Gabrielle, over here," Jared called out from several yards away. At his own insistence, the young man had joined Xena's diversionary force, mostly so he could be near Gabrielle.
The bard hurried over to where Jared was crouching. He pointed triumphantly at the dirt, and she bent down to inspect a set of bootprints embedded in the soil. She measured them with her hand. Definitely the right size to be Xena's, and they headed east, towards Caesar.
"Damn it, Xena," she breathed, staring off in the direction that the warrior's tracks went.
Gabrielle turned back to where Kieran and the rest of the soldiers were patiently waiting. They all looked at her expectantly, and she felt like she was near tears. She took a shaky breath to calm herself.
"Xena went east," she said, as if that was all the explanation that was necessary.
Kieran and Brandt looked at each other uncertainly and then looked back at her. She sighed in frustration and rubbed her temples, her headache starting to return.
"I don't know what to do!" Gabrielle burst out angrily. This wasn't what they had planned. Xena was forever changing the plan whenever it suited her, and Gabrielle hated that.
"Okay. The idea was to meet up with Xena here, and then we would all go find the Romans together, right?" Kieran said, taking charge. "Well, it looks like your crazy friend has gone off to hunt the bastards by herself. It seems to me that we should stick to our plan and head east now. One way or another, we're gonna run into them, and we need to lead them here."
"Good idea," Brandt nodded vigorously, pale blue eyes darting about nervously. Dalton had given him very specific instructions, and he wasn't entirely sure how Xena's absence would affect them.
"Right." Kieran clapped his massive hands together and signaled to the gathered soldiers behind him. "We go east."
Gabrielle followed him, praying fervently that Xena was allright. She was barely aware of Jared keeping pace beside her.
"I'm sure she's fine, Gabrielle," he offered tentatively.
"She is. She has to be." Gabrielle replied, her eyes firmly fixed on the eastern horizon.
Sitting astride her grey warhorse, Siobahn surveyed the landscape for what seemed like the thousandth time in the last half candlemark. She shifted impatiently in the saddle, feeling the buzz of excitement, anticipation and fear rising from her massed army behind her. Dalton pulled his horse alongside her and tapped her knee.
"Relax. It's not time yet," he said, grinning at her insincerely.
Siobahn peered at him closely. There was something odd about her cousin today, something in his eyes. She shrugged it off, figuring it was probably just nervousness about the battle. She smiled back at him.
"I know it isn't. I'm just a little antsy, I guess," she admitted. "I'm gonna make sure everything is in place. Keep an eye on things here for me, okay?"
Giving the reins a little shake, Siobahn turned her horse and rode back through the ranks. Mounted archers made up the front line of her army. They would swoop down on the Romans like lightning and unleash a torrent of arrows on their unsuspecting foe. Behind them, came the regular cavalry, armed with swords and maces. Then, the infantry waited, carrying swords, spears, clubs, anything they could find. Finally, a small group manned a trio of siege engines, to be used only if the battle was lost. The catapults would rain down a firestorm of burning pitch, killing as many of the Romans as possible before Siobahn's army fell. She hoped they wouldn't be necessary.
Wheeling her horse around again, Siobahn trotted up to the front lines to discover that Dalton had vanished. Standing in the stirrups, she scanned the countryside for her elusive kinsman, but he was nowhere in sight. Scowling in consternation, she turned to a slight, willowy woman mounted on a chestnut mare nearby.
"Elannah, did you see where Dalton went? I asked him to keep a lookout here," Siobahn asked, but the other woman shook her head, indicating that she hadn't noticed Dalton's departure.
"Elayne's teeth!" Siobahn swore, invoking the name of one of the great warrior goddesses of Eire. "Where did he run off to now?"
No one answered her, and Siobahn ran her fingers anxiously through her auburn curls. The incessant waiting was getting to her, and fire burned in her blood as she longed for the battle to begin. She leaned forward in the saddle, peering out at the distant, snow-covered hills, hoping for the first glimpse of the mighty Roman legions.
Xena crouched silently behind a thick, ancient oak tree at the top of the first hill. Below her, a Roman advance party was taking a short rest in the valley between this slope and the next. The rest of the legions wouldn't be far behind, and Xena was fairly certain that Caesar would be riding near the head of his army. Glancing over her shoulder, she could see the tiny specks moving towards her position. That would be Kieran, she mused. She gauged the distance between them and nodded to herself. Returning her gaze to the Romans, she slowly removed her chakram from her waist, rubbing her thumb along its flat surface as she calculated angles. Standing, she cocked her arm back and aimed for a stout tree on the valley floor, flinging the chakram with unerring accuracy.
Romans scattered and dove for cover as the deadly weapon whizzed past their heads, careened off trees and boulders and soared back up to the top of the hill where it was caught by a lone, leather-clad warrior. Xena returned the chakram to her hip with a flourish. She unleashed a wild battle yell and took off running, back down the western side of the hill. Behind her, shouts of recognition rang out.
"It's Xena! After her!"
A weathered Roman soldier grabbed the arm of a boy near him. "You! Go tell Caesar that Xena's here." He turned the boy loose and watched as the youth raced back towards the legions. Then the weathered soldier joined the mad dash up the slope, chasing after the impossibly fast warrior princess.
Xena's boots pounded against the frozen earth, and she pumped her arms furiously, digging deep inside herself for an extra burst of speed. The Romans were behind her; she could hear them scrambling after her, but she didn't dare look back to see how close they were. She focused grimly on the growing specks ahead of her, needing to close the distance between herself and Kieran's forces. Xena's lungs were on fire, but she ignored the pain and sprinted onward.
Gabrielle saw it first, just a faint hint of motion on the hillside, followed after a moment by a larger wave. It was Xena. Being chased by a pack of angry Romans. Without thinking, Gabrielle broke into a run, startling those around her. All she knew was that she had to reach Xena before the Romans did.
Jared recovered his wits first and dashed after the bard. He caught up to her in a few long strides, and he reached out for her arm. With surprising strength, she jerked free and glared at him angrily.
"I have to get to Xena," she snapped at him.
Jared blinked at her as she rapidly pulled away from him and he slowed. Xena? He wondered what Gabrielle had seen, and then, straining his eyes into the distance, he saw it too. Jared whirled and shouted back to Kieran, who was watching them, scratching his jaw in puzzlement.
"Kieran! It's Xena! She's coming and she's got a couple dozen Romans behind her!"
The battle-hardened warrior felt the fire rush through his veins. It was now or never, he figured. Letting out a mighty roar, Kieran led the charge of a hundred men and women, eager for the first taste of their hated invaders' blood. They quickly overtook the sprinting bard, and she was swept up into their midst as they barreled headlong towards their foe.
Xena risked a glance up and saw the mass running towards her. She smiled, and a low chuckle bubbled up from her throat as she redoubled her efforts. A crossbow bolt flew past her shoulder, and she growled angrily, reaching back to unsheathe her sword as she ran. Just a few more minutes. Another arrow soared past, this one close enough to graze her hair. She was close enough now to make out the features of the soldiers sprinting towards her. There was Kieran, leading the way, his eyes blazing with excitement. Xena's eyes moved past him to meet Gabrielle's. She smiled at the bard and gave her a cocky wink, getting a faint, tense smile back in return.
With a bloodcurdling cry, Xena unexpectedly launched herself into a flip, twisting in mid-air so that she landed facing the pursuing Romans. Snarling furiously, she slashed at the first opponent to come within her reach, her blade slicing easily through his leather armor. He fell, staring in astonishment at the blood spurting from his chest. Two more Romans attacked her, and Xena thrust the first one back with a well-placed kick to the midsection. She blocked the other's strike with her sword, feeling the jarring blow rattle her arm all the way to her elbow, and she slammed the heel of her left hand into his face, feeling the satisfying crunch when his nose broke. Xena ducked beneath a wild swing from a husky Roman, but she couldn't dodge in time to avoid an elbow that smashed painfully into her ribs.
Kieran was the first to reach the beleaguered warrior princess. He swung his heavy, two-handed broadsword around him in a wide arc, slicing through two Romans who crumpled instantly to the ground. Gabrielle dashed past him, sweeping the feet out from under a tall centurion who was closing in on Xena.
"Thanks," Xena said, slightly out of breath.
"Anytime," Gabrielle returned, jabbing the end of her staff into a Roman chest.
The air was filled with the sound of clashing steel and cries of pain. The Roman advance party was badly outnumbered, and they knew it, but they fought on determinedly until the last man had fallen. Xena spun, her dark hair whipping around her face as she made sure there was no one left. Twenty-two dead Romans littered the ground, while they had lost only four of their own number. Kieran thrust his dripping sword high above his head and bellowed a victorious cheer that was quickly taken up by the rest of his comrades. Xena wiped her blade clean on the cloak of a fallen centurion, but she didn't share in the celebration. This day was far from over.
She was driven back a few steps as Gabrielle flung herself at her, pulling the warrior into a relieved hug, in spite of the blood that liberally coated Xena's armor. She indulged the bard for a moment before gently prying Gabrielle loose. This wasn't the time or place.
Gabrielle stared in horror at the sticky red stains that were splashed across Xena's armor and skin. Xena caught the look and shook her head.
"Don't worry, none of it's mine," she said, gesturing at her spattered form. "I picked up a couple of new bruises to add to my collection, but nothing serious."
Gabrielle exhaled slowly, caught between relief that Xena wasn't injured and anger because the stubborn warrior had gone off on her own and put herself in danger. Xena sensed the bard's annoyance, and she was about to make an attempt at an apology when something caught her eye. At the crest of the nearest hill, the afternoon sun reflected off two sets of polished metal armor, one silver and one gold. Gently, Xena moved Gabrielle aside, and the bard turned curiously to see what the warrior was staring at. Though she couldn't see his face, Xena knew without a doubt that Julius Caesar was watching her.
Slowly, Caesar dismounted from his pristine white stallion, the Roman commander's every movement communicated his extreme irritation. His thin nostrils flared and his lips pressed together to form a hard, tight line. While he had watched, Xena and her band of barbarians had decimated his advance party. Caesar gazed at the western sky. Dusk would be upon them in just a few short candlemarks. Internally, he vowed to fight until the sun rose in the morning, if that was what it took to wipe these savages from the face of the earth.
"Brutus." Without turning, Caesar summoned his loyal, fawning second-in-command. His silky voice masked his anger.
"Yes, Caesar," Brutus snapped to attention beside his commander.
Caesar's eyes were fixed on the fierce, leather-clad woman standing in the middle of the carnage below. He was sure that Xena couldn't see him, but then the warrior lifted her sword defiantly and the piercing sound of that damnable battle cry reached his ears. Caesar burned with fury, and when he spoke again, his words were clipped and harsh.
"I want them dead, Brutus. Every last one of them."
Brutus pressed his fist above his heart in the Roman salute. "It will be done, Caesar." Spinning around stiffly, he practically leaped onto his horse's back, wheeling the animal around so that he could spread the word to the other generals.
Caesar watched the scene below for a moment more, his gaze never leaving the tall warrior princess. Finally, he turned away and remounted his stallion. He grabbed his gold helmet from the pommel of his saddle and settled it firmly on his head, readying himself for the charge. Hooves thundered behind him as Brutus and the rest of his mounted generals returned, and he glanced over his shoulder at the rows of waiting legions. Horses snorted and stamped impatiently. Caesar drew his sword and held it aloft.
"For the glory of Rome!" Julius Caesar shouted, kicking his heels into his stallion's flanks. Moving as one, the might of the Roman legions poured down the hillside.
Siobahn shielded her eyes from the glare of the sun. From her vantage point, she hadn't been able to see the battle between Xena's diversionary force and the Roman advance party, but she had been able to hear the sounds of the fight. She longed to be a part of it. The battle had ceased, and for a long, breathless moment, everything had gone silent. Then a triumphant cheer had gone up, and Siobahn had recognized Kieran's resonant bass among the voices. They'd had their first taste of victory. Siobahn twisted around in her saddle, searching the tense faces behind her. Still no Dalton. She swore under her breath, knowing that she couldn't afford to wait for her wayward cousin.
"Archers, prepare yourselves," she called out, unstrapping the crossbow from her own back.
She notched a bolt firmly and checked the rest of the arrows in the quiver at her knee. Siobahn closed her eyes and exhaled deeply, offering up a brief prayer to whatever gods or goddesses were listening. Her ears pricked as a rumbling roar filled the air and the ground seemed to shake beneath their feet. The Roman cavalry, she thought. She struggled to restrain herself from charging immediately. She had to give Xena time to engage the legions and draw them into the trap, then Siobahn and her army would sweep down the hillside and cut off the unsuspecting Romans from behind.
The victory celebration ceased abruptly at the sight of the legions streaming down the hill. Gabrielle stared at them, her eyes wide. How in the world were they supposed to stand against that?
"Mother goddess, save us all," someone whispered behind her.
Xena snapped out of the trance first. "To the cliff! Fall back, now!" she shouted, shoving the man nearest to her in the proper direction to get him moving.
Kieran picked up the cry. "Run, damn you all! Run, or I'll kill you long before the Romans do!"
It was a desperate sprint back to the sheer, rocky cliff where they had prepared their trap. The Romans thundered behind them, drowning out all other sounds and plunging everything into near chaos. Xena shouted at the top of her voice, gesturing emphatically with her sword, telling them to spread out and try to stay clear of the edge. In the confusion, Xena and Gabrielle became separated, and the crush of bodies hid the bard from the warrior's view. Xena's head whipped around frantically, trying to spot her companion.
"Gabrielle!" she cried, and then the legions were upon them.
Xena dove aside as a rain of arrows plummeted down from the sky. All around her, men fell, screaming in agony, struck down by the deadly torrent, but miraculously, Xena emerged unscathed. She rolled to her feet, sword in hand, and spared a split second to hope that Gabrielle was unharmed. Then, her warrior instincts took over, and with a ferocious growl, she waded into the fray.
A pikeman attacked her, and Xena dodged to the side, letting him lunge past her. She seized his outstretched arm and squeezed tightly, forcing him to drop his weapon. Then she bent his arm backwards until the bones snapped and he shrieked in pain. Tossing him aside, she moved on to the next opponent. For a moment, the space around her cleared and she caught a glimpse of a white stallion. In the same instant, Caesar turned, jerking his sword free from a limp body. Their eyes met, burning with an old hatred. Then the bodies pressed in again, blocking them from each other's sight.
Someone crashed into her back, and Xena spun, grabbing the unfortunate man by the throat. Jared stared back at her, his eyes wide with panic. Xena released him and then pushed him aside as a Roman charged at them. With a wet, scraping sound, she rammed her sword between his ribs, the point of the blade angling up out of his back. Bright red blood gushed from his mouth, and his eyes rolled back in his head as he slid from her blade. Jared was still staring at her in shock, his sword dangling uselessly from his limp fingers. Xena grabbed him by the shoulders and shook him until she saw some hint of recognition in his eyes.
"Jared, snap out of it! Find Gabrielle, okay? Find Gabrielle and stay with her. Protect her."
Jared nodded obediently, Xena's orders piercing the haze that was clouding his brain. He swallowed hard and ran off in search of the bard. A hand wielding a wicked looking club brushed past his head, and he narrowly escaped having his skull split. He lashed out with his sword in reflex. To his surprise, Jared's blade connected, opening a nasty gash in the shoulder of a Roman footsoldier. Jared stumbled away, sick to his stomach. There was no sign of Gabrielle.
Xena forged ahead through the chaos, her sword slashing its way through the melee. She found Kieran, drenched in blood from head to toe, systematically hacking limbs from his opponents. She grabbed his arm and brought her lips close to his ear, the hot, coppery stench of blood filling her nose with its oddly intoxicating scent.
"It's time to get out of here," she yelled.
Kieran grunted in agreement. He shouted out a few words in an ancient language that she didn't understand. His words passed from man to man, and soon their entire force was moving west, drawing the Romans closer to the edge of the cliff.
Siobahn grit her teeth and a wave of impatience overtook her. It was time. She would wait no longer. She straightened in the saddle and a hush fell over her army as they waited anxiously for her command.
"Men and women of Eire, follow me!" Siobahn shouted boldly, leading the charge forward.
Following their leader, her auburn mane flowing freely in the breeze, the army of Eire spilled down the hillside and sped around the bend in the path with a frenzied cry. The Romans were confused by the new attack, and they milled about uncertainly, unsure whether they should follow the fleeing forces or turn and face this new adversary. Their indecision gave Xena and her men the chance they needed to escape, and the Roman legions were drawn into the jaws of the trap.
Inexorably, Siobahn and her army drove the Romans back towards the steep edge of the cliff. The legions fought bravely, but they were being forced backwards, leaving them little room to maneuver, and the air echoed with the agonized screams of men as they fell over the precipice and met their deaths on the rocks below.
Caesar looked around wildly, shoving his helmet up and out of his eyes, and he realized that he had been tricked. Xena and her people had wheeled around his legions' flanks and now she was boxing them in. He howled in rage and plunged his sword into one of his own soldiers in his fury. He stared at Brutus, who was bleeding from a cut beneath his right eye. Around him, the legions were faltering. Their ranks were quickly unraveling as they were either cut to pieces by the ferocious onslaught or driven to their deaths over the edge.
"Sir, we can't stay here," Brutus said finally, risking Caesar's wrath.
Caesar just stared at him, expressionless. He needed time to regroup, lick his wounds, and live to fight another day. "Sound a retreat, Brutus," he hissed through clenched teeth.
Six Roman soldiers had Xena surrounded, and her sword became little more than a blinding flash of light as she fought them all. One fell victim to a jaw-shattering elbow. Another crumpled when a savage sidekick snapped his head back with an audible crack. A third stared down in shock as blood poured from a gaping wound in his chest. He staggered back and fell. A wicked grin spread across Xena's face and she could feel the darkness awakening within her, looking to escape. She twirled her sword around her wrist and beckoned to the remaining three attackers.
"Bring it on," she snarled.
The three Romans looked at each other, then they dropped their weapons and ran. With her index finger, Xena wiped blood from a cut on her upper arm. Damn, which one of those bastards was lucky enough to lay a blade on me, she wondered. She spotted Jared to her left, being driven to his knees by a towering centurion with a chest as thick as a tree stump. Her battle cry tumbled from her lips as she launched herself into a flip, landing behind the centurion. She grabbed his head and twisted sharply, and he dropped in a heap. Jared started to stammer incoherently, but she ignored him, finding a welcome sight several yards away.
Gabrielle battled a tall, thin opponent who loomed over her threateningly. Disheveled blonde locks flew aound her sweating, dirt-stained face, but she appeared to be otherwise unharmed. Gripping her staff with both hands, the bard slammed one end into his side and then swiftly reversed the motion, dumping him off his feet. She looked up and saw Xena watching her with a faintly approving grin, and she started to lift her hand to wave. Then something hard collided with the back of her head and everything went dark. Gabrielle slumped to the ground unconscious, revealing Brandt's lanky form behind her, a heavy club in his hand. His pale blue eyes met Xena's and he smiled.
Xena's blood froze in her veins and her stomach lurched when Gabrielle fell. She stared at Brandt in shock and confusion, almost missing a spear that flew in her direction. At the last second, she swatted it away, and the tip dug a long, shallow furrow in her side. She pressed her hand against the tear in her leathers to stop the bleeding, and when she looked up again, Brandt and Gabrielle were gone.
"Son of a bacchae," she whispered.
Xena looked around , and her stomach sank even further. Everywhere she turned, members from Siobahn's army were butchering their supposed comrades. She watched in horror as Elannah, a tall wispy blonde, sank a dagger into the back of Gereth's thick neck. What in Tartarus was going on here?
In the thick of the battle, Siobahn had lost her horse. She threw her fist into the face of the Roman in front of her, grunting in satisfaction as he dropped to the ground with a thud. Spinning about, she found herself face to face with her missing cousin.
"Dalton! Where have you been?" she asked, her brow wrinkling in confusion as he responded with an almost apologetic smile.
Her eyes widened and she grabbed his muscular arm, looking down in astonishment at the ornate hilt of a dagger sticking out of her belly. Slowly, she sank to her knees, unable to utter a sound.
"Sorry, cousin. You wouldn't have understood." Dalton grinned at her, madness evident in his dark eyes. He cocked his head to the side, watching her as she fell.
An anguished howl made him turn his head, and he saw Kieran rushing toward him, broadsword raised. Several of Dalton's acolytes blocked the grizzled warrior's path and he fell beneath their blows. Dalton smiled. So far, everything was going according to plan. He pointed to the north, and his followers nodded their understanding, and leaving the tattered remnants of two armies behind, they ran towards the darkening woods.
Frantically, Xena tossed bodies out of her way until she reached the place where Gabrielle and Brandt had disappeared. She knelt in the mud, searching desperately for a set of tracks that would lead her to the bard, but the battleground had been churned by too many feet. She slammed her fist against the ground.
"What just happened?" Jared asked dazedly, standing beside her.
"I don't know," Xena answered curtly, her mind racing as she tried to figure everything out.
"Where did Brandt take her?" Jared continued.
"Damn it, I don't know!" Xena screamed at him in frustration, instantly regretting it as Jared flinched and backed away from her in fear. She rubbed her eyes with a grimy, blood-stained hand, leaving a muddy streak across her cheek. "Jared, wait. I didn't mean to yell at you. I just...I don't know what's going on here."
Jared's eyes narrowed and he regarded her warily, but he nodded, accepting her peace offering. He inched closer, hoping to spot some clue that the warrior had overlooked.
She whirled as someone called her name urgently. A short, stocky young man stumbled towards her, bleeding badly from an arrow in his thigh. Xena caught him as he fell, using pressure points to stop the flow of blood, and she bound his wound using a strip torn from a nearby Roman cloak.
"Dalton," he gasped weakly. "I saw him. He murdered the general. He murdered Siobahn."
Anger boiled in the warrior's veins and she cursed herself for not throwing Dalton to the sharks when she had had the chance. She should have listened to the inner voice that had told her that ther ugly brute was dangerous. Dalton's treachery would not go unpunished, she vowed silently. She looked down at the man on the ground. He was slipping in and out of consciousness, nearly delirious from pain and blood loss. Xena shook him gently, needing more information.
"Do you know his name?" Xena asked Jared, who was watching with interest.
"I think it's Cale," he said, crouching down to watch the warrior work as she released the pinch and allowed blood to course freely to the man's injured leg. His face contorted in pain.
"Okay, Cale. Listen to me. You've lost a lot of blood, but you're gonna be just fine. Can you hear me?"
Cale's eyes fluttered open and he nodded. Xena smiled at him tensely, trying to hide her mounting impatience.
"Good. Now, this is really important. Did you see where Dalton went?"
The man's eyes slid shut again, and he coughed. "North. Towards the woods," he croaked before passing out.
Xena stood and grabbed the first familiar face she saw, a woman with a round face and a large, prominent nose. She had been one of Siobahn's cooks, the warrior recalled. A fleeting pang of regret flashed through the warrior's mind as she thought of the fallen woman. She and Siobahn just might have been friends after all of this was over. She shook her dark head; there would be time to mourn Siobahn later. Right now, there were more important matters at hand. Xena pointed at the unconscious man lying on the ground at her feet.
"This man is wounded. Make sure he gets taken care of," she ordered bluntly.
The stout woman murmured her assent and signaled to a few other uninjured soldiers to come help her. Xena waited until they had carried Cale away from the battle, and then she started north towards the trees at a steady run. After several steps, she realized that Jared was still tagging along. Without slowing down, she turned her head to glare at him.
"What do you think you're doing?" Xena asked, her voice low and dangerous.
"What are you doing, Xena?" Jared shot back angrily, his normally placid eyes flashing. "Why are you chasing Dalton when Brandt has Gabrielle?"
Xena didn't answer right away. Her legs were tired and trembling, and she was starting to ache from a multitude of new cuts and bruises, but doggedly, she lowered her head and continued to run. She knew Jared was waiting for her to say something. It wasn't anything she could explain, exactly, but somehow she knew that when she found Dalton, she would find Brandt. And Gabrielle. She told all this to Jared. He seemed unconvinced, but he followed her anyway, straining to keep pace as the last vestiges of sunlight vanished beneath the horizon.
Gabrielle felt like her brain had been wrapped in thick wool. Thick wool filled with sharp metal spikes. As she came to, she became aware of the cold iron manacles clamped tightly around her wrists and ankles. Opening her eyes, she tried to lift her head and let out a sharp hiss as pain ripped through her skull. She was lying flat on her back on a hard, stone surface. It was very dark around her, and she thought she was in a cave of some sort. A single guttering torch burned near her feet, but its meager flame failed to cast much light. Gabrielle tried to focus, the way the Xena had taught her. Closing her eyes, she struggled to block out all of the extraneous sounds, but the throbbing in her head affected her concentration. Still, she was fairly sure that she wasn't alone.
"Who's there?" she called out, trying to make her voice sound intimidating.
No one answered her at first, and Gabrielle began to panic. Had she been left here all alone to starve to death, or worse? She struggled against her bonds, but her efforts only caused the metal to bite more deeply into her flesh. She took a deep breath and forced herself to calm down.
"Okay, Gabrielle, think. What would Xena do?" she asked herself out loud, her voice echoing off the stone walls.
A derisive snort came from the darkness behind her, and she craned her neck towards the sound. A mocking sneer on his face, Brandt emerged from the darkness. He had thrown a hooded robe on over his armor, and a long, curved dagger hung from his belt. He loomed over the bard in the darkness, his fingers sensuously caressing the hilt of his blade.
"Xena can't help you now," he cackled, his eyes burning with the rabid madness of a zealot. "You belong to us, Gabrielle."
Gabrielle mind raced. Us? Who's us? Resolutely ignoring the star bursts exploding in her skull, she lifted her head as far as she could, searching the shadows for her other captors. There didn't appear to be anyone else in the cavern, and Gabrielle firmly believed that Brandt had gone insane. She fought against her shackles again, to no avail, and as the lanky blond man approached her, she did the only thing she could think to do. She took a deep breath and screamed.
Brandt lunged forward and slapped a heavy, dirt-stained hand across the bard's mouth, muffling her cry. He yelled and jerked his hand away a few seconds later, as Gabrielle bit through the soft flesh at the base of his thumb. Cursing angrily, he backhanded the bard across the cheek, and she fell silent, dazed by the blow. Instinctively, he brought his wounded hand to his lips, tasting the metallic tang of his own blood.
"Bitch." He growled, preparing to strike her again.
A high-pitched whine tore loose from his throat as a strong hand grabbed his arm and twisted it. Brandt backed away, staring fearfully into a pair of dark, angry eyes. Releasing his acolyte's wrist, Dalton stepped out of the shadows and into the weak circle of light provided by the single torch. His ape-like face peered down at the seething bard and a chilling smile stretched his lips. Gabrielle gasped in fear and an icy shiver ran down her spine as she realized that there was no trace of sanity in his eyes.
"Our master wishes her to be unharmed, Brandt. You know that," Dalton warned in his rough, gravelly voice.
Behind Dalton, a handful of others entered the cave. They carried torches, and the flames illuminated the interior of the cavern. Gabrielle looked around curiously, and her stomach sank as she recognized a chillingly familiar scene. She was chained to a crude stone altar that rose from the depths of a deep chasm in the ground. Whispering in a language that she didn't understand, Dalton and his followers moved to form a ring around her. She recognized most of them. They were from Siobahn's army, people that she had been fighting alongside not long ago. Tears welled in the bard's eyes and she pulled desperately against her bonds, not even feeling the blood that ran down her wrists as the cuffs cut into her skin.
"No," she moaned. Not this. Anything but this.
Slowly, Dalton drew a dagger from his belt. He leaned over the struggling bard, so close that their faces nearly touched, and he placed the tip of the blade at the corner of Gabrielle's eye. Grinning maniacally, her traced a slow line down the bard's tear-stained cheek, pressing not quite hard enough to break the skin. She could feel his hot, fetid breath on her ear as he whispered to her.
"Submit to his will, Gabrielle, and he will end your pain."
"Oh yeah? Who's gonna end yours?"
Dalton looked up as a deadpan drawl cut through the tense atmosphere within the cave. A tall, commanding presence towered in the entryway, her face cloaked in shadows. Blue eyes glinted dangerously in the torchlight as Xena glided forward, like a wolf stalking its prey. Jared hovered just behind her shoulder, looking nervous, but resolved. Xena ignored the others in the cavern, focusing her contemptuous sneer on Dalton. She took a threatening step towards the altar, but instead of being intimidated, the arrogant priest looked pleased. His eyes bored into the warrior, staring at her with a fanatical gleam. Mocking laughter sprang from his rubbery lips as he placed his blade against Gabrielle's throat.
"That's far enough, Xena," he warned. "Drop your weapons. You too, Jared."
Xena hesitated, and Dalton pressed the tip of his dagger into the skin of the bard's neck, drawing a thin trickle of blood.
"Drop them now, or I'll cut her throat." Xena suspected that he was bluffing, but she couldn't take the chance. Not with Gabrielle's life. Left no other choice, Xena tossed her sword and her chakram to the ground, and Jared quickly followed suit. Dalton smiled at them calmly.
"Let her go," Xena demanded quietly, gesturing towards Gabrielle.
Dalton laughed. "Oh, I don't think so, Xena. Dahak has other plans for his bride."
Xena's heart nearly stopped beating and Gabrielle let out a small whimper of terror at the mention of that unspeakable name. The rare, bitter taste of fear filled the warrior's mouth, and she could only imagine what Gabrielle was feeling. Xena racked her brain, determined to find a way out of this. Green eyes met hers in a mute plea for help.
"Tell him to leave Gabrielle alone. Hasn't she suffered enough?" Xena implored desperately.
The words had scarcely left her mouth when the fire sprang to life around the altar. Flames surrounded Gabrielle, licking at her hungrily, and the ragged sound of the bard's terrified sobs reached the warrior's ears. Hot tears of frustration burned in Xena's eyes and she set aside her pride, begging Dalton to let the bard go.
Dalton merely smiled at her with that same, infuriatingly calm gaze. "Dahak requires a new vessel through which he can enter this world, and Gabrielle is still his chosen bride. She must bear him another child to replace the one she murdered."
"No! Don't you touch her, you bastard!" Jared lunged forward, and Xena grabbed the collar of his tunic, hauling him back before the young fool could get himself killed.
"Let me handle this, Jared," she said, shoving him roughly behind her.
On the altar, Gabrielle screamed as the flames began to close in on her, curling around her arms and legs. Xena took another step forward. There had to be a way to stop this. She'd be damned if she was going to let Gabrielle go through this nightmare again.
"Take me. Take me instead," she offered, her eyes fixed on Gabrielle's face.
Dalton cocked his head at her. "But you are not his chosen." He paused, seeing the desperation clearly written across the warrior's face. Everything was working perfectly. He narrowed his eyes, appearing to consider Xena's offer. Then his eyes brightened, and he looked at her seriously.
"There is a way," he began doubtfully, drawing the helpless warrior into the snare.
"Anything," Xena said without hesitation.
Dalton's eyes flicked to the breathlessly waiting acolytes around him. He waved them away.
"Leave us. Take the boy with you," he pointed at Jared.
As Dalton's disciples silently started to file out of the cave, pulling Jared along with them, Xena grabbed the young man's arm and held him back for a moment. Intense blue eyes bored into his with a seriousness he'd never seen before.
"If anything happens to me, get Gabrielle out of here. Do whatever you have to, but get her out and keep her safe."
Jared nodded mutely, suddenly seeing a whole new facet to the gruff, imposing warrior princess. He was beginning to understand what Gabrielle saw in her. He started to say something, but Brandt seized the scruff of his neck and dragged him out of the cavern. Xena waited until they were gone, and then she turned back to the grotesquely grinning priest.
"Tell me," she commanded.
"It requires a sacrifice."
"Fine. I'd sooner die than let him hurt Gabrielle again." Xena words penetrated through Gabrielle's mind-numbing horror, and for a moment, she forgot about the flames that reached for her greedily.
"Xena, no," she whispered, unable to manage more than a hoarse croak.
Dalton began to laugh, the sound reverberating off the walls. "Dahak doesn't want your life, Xena. He wants your soul. Give yourself over to him, of your own free will, and he will spare your little blonde."
Xena's heart sank, and suddenly, the meaning of her nightmares became clear. All of this had been carefully orchestrated, all of it. Siobahn's summons, her trip to Eire, the battle with the Romans, all of it had been designed to bring her to this moment. Gabrielle was staring at her, silently begging her not to do it, but Xena knew that there was no other choice. She steeled herself and turned to Dalton.
"If I do this, Gabrielle and Jared go free and they have safe passage back to Greece," she laid out her terms.
Dalton nodded eagerly, already envisioning the rewards that his master would bestow for bringing him such a valiant warrior's soul.
"The bard and the boy will leave Eire unharmed," he promised. As a gesture of good faith, he reached through the fire and unlocked Gabrielle's chains. Grabbing her by the hair, he dragged her off the altar, but held her fast when she tried to run.
Xena gazed sadly into Gabrielle's eyes, and a bittersweet smile flitted across her face as she imagined what their future might have been. She was glad she had finally revealed her true feelings to her best friend. She knew in the depths of her soul that she would probably never have another chance. Tears spilled unchecked down the warrior's cheeks, and she took a resolute step towards the fiery chasm. Tendrils of flame reached out for her, beckoning to her. Her heart was breaking as she turned to Dalton.
"Tell Dahak we have a deal."
Before she could think twice, Xena lunged forward and thrust her hand into the flames, watching in fascination as it wound its way around her arm and then quickly engulfed her entire body, filling the cavern with an unnatural brightness. It was surprisingly cold. The booming, triumphant laughter echoed through her mind and she could feel her identity being buried beneath something powerful and evil. Just as the darkness began to overtake her, she looked at Gabrielle and smiled.
"I love you. Forgive me."
As Gabrielle watched in horror, Xena's eyes went completely black and a strange, alien chuckle began to emanate from the warrior's throat. The walls of the cavern trembled violently, shaking loose small bits of granite. Dalton hissed in alarm, and he forcibly dragged Gabrielle towards the opening as she struggled violently to reach Xena's side.
"No! Xena, no!" Gabrielle cried, trying to rip herself free from Dalton's grasp.
Outside the cavern, Brandt still held Jared prisoner as he and the other disciples watched in open-mouthed amazement. Dalton half-dragged, half-carried the screaming bard out of the cave as the earth continued to quake violently. Briefly, Gabrielle broke away and she rushed back towards the opening, but Dalton grabbed her around the waist and flung her down roughly. Her head struck the ground, and she nearly passed out. Xena cried out in agony as rocks tumbled down, burying the entrance to the cave.
"Nooooo!" Gabrielle wailed, her scream fading as she slipped into merciful unconsciousness.
To be continued.
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