"Gods, it stinks in here," Salima complained as she sat on a wooden crate, a large hammer across her lap.
Drefin ran his whetstone over his sword again, eyeing the edge of the blade as he replied, "Be thankful you’re not down there. From the sounds of it, the captain heaved up everything she’s ever eaten, and she’s practically made of iron."
The woman was silent for a long moment, staring out into the rain-filled darkness. Carried on the wind, they could hear the distant sounds of the ram pounding against their defences. "Think she’ll do it?"
He used his oil rag to wipe down the weapon before sheathing it again. "I…" He didn’t want to jinx the mission by voicing his true feelings. "I don’t know. She’ll try her damnedest though."
"Yeah," she quietly agreed. She had worked with Kiran on occasion before the siege, but mostly had stuck with her own squad. From everything she had seen and heard though, the other woman deserved her rank, honorary or not.
"Stay alert though. If you hear anything suspicious, we’ll need to close this thing up fast."
"I know, I know. It just doesn’t feel good. I mean, if we have to do that… they’ll be trapped out there."
Silence fell as they shared an uneasy glance.
"We’ll hold it open as long as we can," Drefin said finally.
Salima looked idly around the room with almost all of its contents removed except for a few boxes. "Were you here when it happened?"
She didn’t even need to say what ‘it’ was. The troops were still talking about the Warrior Princess’ incredible escape through the tunnel. "Yeah. I couldn’t believe it. She just whipped out this dagger and started cutti-"
A woman’s scream cut through the night air, bringing both of them immediately to their feet.
"What the Hades was that?!" Salimas exclaimed.
Another scream and the clang of metal followed hard on her words, and Drefin drew his sword and started for the door. "You stay here and watch the tunnel," he shouted over his shoulder. "I’m gonna check it out!"
"Wait!" objected Salima, throwing out a hand towards him. Too late. He was gone. "Well, damn it." She set the hammer down on the crate, drew her own weapon and moved to a spot halfway between the door and the tunnel. The sounds had ceased almost as soon as they began, and it was hard to hear anything over the constant hiss of the rain hitting the rooftop. "Dref?" she called out. "Did you find anything?"
Her gut instincts were waving warning flags at her, and she moved cautiously forward, her sword lifted into a ready position already fearing the worst. A breach in the walls maybe? Or some kind of sneak attack? Sweat was making her palms slippery, and Salima tried to reassert her grip on the hilt when another sound came to her out of the darkness, followed by an anguished moan. Swallowing hard, she stepped forward, her eyes darting around in an effort to pinpoint the origin of the sound.
A bang made her jump and an object slid into the outer ring of light thrown by the torches just inside the doorway making her take a step backwards in surprise. A familiar crosspiece and hilt gleamed dully in the weak light. His sword.
"Dref?" she called again. There was a groan and an arm rolled into view garbed in a uniform matching her own. "Dref!" She moved out into the rain and knelt by his side. He was bigger than her, but she pushed him over on his back and noticed the blood that ran down his face from a deep slash in his temple. The sight of his eyes half-open and rolling back in his head scared her badly. "Oh gods, Dref. C’mon now!" Shaking him only elicited a guttural moan and nothing more. Wounded though he was, she couldn’t afford to ignore the obvious danger. Someone had got to him and whoever had done it was still loose. Stay? Or go for help? An echoing rasp somewhere in the shadows decided her, and Salima felt fear lance through her chest.
I need help. "Damn it," she muttered and stood to leave when something solid smashed into the back of her head, splitting her helmet and caving in her skull. Brilliant light flashed through her vision before she crumpled silently to the street.
* * *
The heavily cloaked figure tossed the bloodied axe to the ground, unmindful of the clatter it made and began stripping the dead woman’s body of her uniform. Minutes later Salima’s killer stepped into the now empty warehouse. The wet cloak was negligently thrown aside in the middle of the floor as the owner’s solid footsteps approached the tunnel opening and, with no hesitation at all, descended into the depths of the sewer.
No stray patrols showed themselves along the boundaries of the gully. As much as she liked it, the absence of raiders just felt wrong somehow. Matters were becoming urgent, however, and she could afford to wait no longer. Giving in to the pressing desire to leave the rank confines of the tunnel and its horrific denizens she turned and whispered over her shoulder, "Single file along the wall. Watch my signals."
The water was colder here, and the falling rain felt like needle pricks against the exposed skin of her face. The bad weather played to their advantage though, giving them the added shield of safety by obscuring sound and visibility. She moved carefully, aware of the slimy surface beneath her submerged boots. Her gloved hand against the stone wall aided her balance and direction, but Kiran cursed the amount of time it was taking to edge along, slowly and patiently, to avoid detection by Stephicles’ men.
The others passed in relative quiet behind her, the slightest burbling swish marking their presence. The captain’s heart sounded loud in her ears; her body tense with her awareness of just how exposed they truly were if discovered. With the wall at their back and the dubious comfort and safety of the tunnel some ways behind them, their immediate future depended upon getting into range of the cover fire her archers could provide at the gate.
Up ahead she could now make out the roadway with its single approach to the thick double doors guarding the entrance to Neapolis proper. Blinking the water from her eyes, Kiran thought she could make out a little less than two dozen troops surrounding the machine. A rough voice called out a rhythm, and she watched as they pushed and pulled the massive tree trunk on its rope sling, rocking it forward against the gate with impressive force.
This is it, then, she told herself and attempted to put a stranglehold on the butterflies that seemed set on turning her stomach inside out. Just need to disable the ram and then get the Hades out of here. She looked around and mentally weighed the odds of their success. We’ll get out of this. Somehow. At her signal, everyone crouched closer to the surface of the water, its stench thankfully muted by the musty smell of the rain. Soaked to her chest and shivering with cold, Kiran began the slow, arduous journey from the wall to the edge of the gully nearest the road. One by one the others joined her, slithering on their bellies out of the mire and into the half frozen scrub. Axes were readied and weapons loosened in their scabbards, and Kiran looked up and down the line to see anxious and eager eyes looking back, tensely waiting for a sign.
The deep, rhythmic boom of the ram against the gate made for a stark counterpoint to the harsh pounding of her heart. Kiran closed her eyes, took a steadying breath, and ripped her sword free of its sheath as she scrambled to her feet. "NOW!" she shouted and began her charge. Her volunteers, yelling at the top of their lungs in response, were right behind her, along side of her, in front of her, surging forward toward their goal.
The sense of wrongness that Kiran felt, doubled, when at their appearance, the attackers turned towards them immediately and brandished weapons of their own as they abandoned their attack on the gate. Just as the lines crashed together, a shout went up from the parapet overhead and suddenly a hail of fiery death rained down around them. Kiran engaged the first man to stand in her way, turning aside his sword and plunging her blade into his stomach. Blood spurted wildly as she ripped it free and she felt the sickening heat of it wash over her hands and face. She ignored it and leapt over his writhing form as he fell, determinedly moved towards the ram, intent on cutting the ropes supporting the massive weapon.
Though outnumbered on the ground, her archers on the catwalk above helped even the odds with their well-timed shots. Sparing a glance upwards, she saw the faces of her troops and the even more welcome sight of her second in command, his shouted orders thinly audible to her over the yells and noise of the battle raging around her. Three of her people had already broken through their lines and were hacking at the ropes holding the ram in place with their hand axes and, with inch by precious inch, Kiran’s small group forced the remaining raiders back up the road and away from the machine.
Kiran drew her own axe and, with death in both hands, she laid into the raiders around her. She would buy them more time with her life if need be. Come see Hades with me, you bastards, she snarled. They came at her singlely or in pairs, and she drew herself off toward the gully, step by step, making them follow her or risk being taken in a flanking attack by Kiran and those that moved with her. A sharp creak snapped through the wet air, and Kiran’s eyes flicked past her opponent’s shoulder to see one end of the ram sag in its cradle. Frayed rope split and parted, and the ram suddenly lurched to a new angle. A collective shout went up from her people, but Kiran knew that their mission was far from over yet. "Keep going!" she ordered them, and redoubled her own efforts to reduce the raiders numbers.
A roar of sound distracted her, costing her a cut along her shoulder. She smashed the hilt of her sword into the other man’s face before turning to look down the road. Through the veil of rain she could see a veritable wall of Stephicles’ troops approaching from the distance. Reinforcements. Her heart sank. They would be trapped against the gate and killed. From their stalk still positions, her troops were thinking the same thought. They had to act, or all would be lost. "Don’t stop!" she shouted and leapt forward, catching the raider off guard as she smashed her axe across his knee. The man went down and she moved past him and forward, intent on providing cover until the others could cut the ram loose. "Thom, Vasilios! Keep cutting! The rest of you with me!" They came to her side, and the seven that remained formed a thin wall in front of the approaching army. "Archers!" She heard the slap of bowstrings and a flight of arrows sliced the air overhead, the flaming tips finding targets in the crowd of men that closed in on them.
"For Neapolis," she spoke loud enough for her people to hear her. "Remember what we’re here for. We have to buy Xena time to get back with help." Kiran shifted her stance, her bloodstained and sodden gloves clenching around her weapons. "You’re my pride. My backbone. You’re what makes us strong and free. Don’t let them sell you cheaply. And whatever happens, I’m proud to stand with you." She felt them steady around her, and felt the fear lift, felt determination take its place. If she were going to die, she’d do it as a warrior with a sword in her hand just like the others.
The front line before them picked up speed and was hardly slowed by the falling arrows. With the gully to either side of the road, the approach was narrowed, and as the raiders hit their stride Kiran raised her axe into the air. "Neapolis!" she roared and swung her sword in a tight arc, the blade ringing hard against someone’s armour as she waded into their line.
Kiran sweated despite the cold and rain, her breath coming hard as she planted herself and stood her ground becoming a rallying point for her troops. It was fierce and hot, and she cursed at the faces that snarled and cursed back at her over the sound of battle. A crash shook the ground beneath her and was followed quickly by a cheer from the wall. Kiran gave a tight smile to the man in front of her before ducking beneath his swing. The tip of her boot caught him in the groin, and she followed up his paralysis with a blow to the neck. The man collapsed, and she gulped for air and wiped blood and rain from her face as the fight raged around her.
A glance over her shoulder showed the end of the ram well and truly dislodged, her two volunteers working at a feverish pace to cut through the remaining ropes. An odd sound met her ears, and suddenly cries went up on the wall. Spinning around, she turned in time to see something bright rush past her, scorching her with its heat. The impact shattered the ram, crushing one man and throwing the other into the wall as the machine exploded in a shower of timber and fibre. The force of it lifted her off her feet as something slammed against her chest, and Kiran was blown aside by the explosion of debris. She hit the ground hard, her weapons knocked from her grasp along with her breath. Light exploded in her vision as the back of her head slammed into the dirt, and she lay there stunned and unable to breathe as pieces of wet wood rained down on top of her.
With her vision swimming, Kiran tried to draw another breath as she rolled onto her belly. Have to…air… her mind panicked. Her trembling frame wouldn’t support her efforts to rise, and she collapsed into the mud still trying to breathe. In her hazy awareness she felt a hand on her shoulder pulling at her, turning her over. In the light of the fire raging near the gate she saw a face floating overhead, and Kiran blinked in a poor attempt to clear her vision.
"Captain?" It was a voice she thought she recognised.
The face leaned closer, resolving itself into wet brown curls and dark chocolate eyes above the familiar cut of the Neapolitan militia uniform. "M-Mira?" Was her imagination playing tricks on her?
"Yup," the face turned and looked around before locking gazes with her. "I knew you should have brought me along."
Is this for real? "How…?" she croaked in confusion at the unlikeliest of apparitions before her. Common sense marshalled itself however. "Get… get out of here."
"No way," the pugnacious acolyte told her. "I’m not going anywhere."
Hands grabbed at her uniform, and Kiran was distantly aware of the sounds of the wounded and sporadic fighting still going on around her. Somehow the rest of her people had survived the attack on the ram. Why would they destroy their own weapon though? Makes no sense.
"We should probably get you to your feet, don’t you think?"
Kiran grunted as Mira pulled her upright, and leaned heavily on the other woman when she felt her knees shake and nearly buckle. Sword. Where’s my sword? Her eyes scanned the darkness looking for her weapon. Without it she felt naked and vulnerable, and they were still at risk here. Attackers and defenders alike were recovering from the catapult shot, gathering their wits and re-engaging in the act of butchering each other.
A sense of disconnection came over her as they stood to one side near the gully where she had been thrown, and watched as if in slow motion while her remaining troops and the enemy faced off amid the wreckage of the battering ram. Bodies lay littered and broken everywhere, the sight of one poor soul impaled through the chest with a chunk of wood the length of her arm seemed surreal. Except, she knew the danger was very real. "You have to get out of here," Kiran said in Mira’s conveniently close ear. "I can’t let you get killed out here."
"I won’t get killed," Mira whispered back. "So long as you live, Neapolis won’t fall, remember? And Kiran…" the smaller woman turned to look at her, a small, sad smile on her face. "I don’t intend to let you live long enough for me to ever be in danger."
The captain blinked, dazed confusion warring with the niggling sense of danger that was making her gut tighten. "Wh-what?" She found the strength to pull back and away, the better to see the small, wry lift of the corner of Mira’s lips, forming the smile that she had once thought of as charming, but now took on a more sinister shape. The unease she had been feeling was forming into a more coherent shape, one that she was fully trying to deny the truth of to herself. Kiran stumbled as she tried to keep her balance, but her limbs, trembling and weak yet, refused to countenance her demands. She fell to one knee in the dirt and looked up in time to see Mira drawing a knife. No… "What are you doing?"
"So long as you live Neapolis will not fall," Mira repeated slowly. "It’s time for you to die." Firelight glinted off the rain slicked blade as Mira drew it back. "With you gone, they’ll fold and crumble, and I’ll finally be free of him."
In the uniform of a soldier, the gentle lines and curves of the acolyte’s body resolved themselves into the stronger, harsher lines of one more suited to holding a blade, and Kiran felt her chest clench as the measure of understanding hit with sickening horror. Trap…oh gods, it’s a trap! "You betrayed us, you bitch!" Kiran spat.
Kiran barely saw it coming, and her head rocked back from the blow from Mira’s gloved fist, her world careening crazily for a frightening moment.
"It’s your own fault for being so trusting," came the bitter rejoinder.
"You’re a heartless piece of crap," Kiran responded as she wiped blood from her chin. "Laera gave you her love and support. And here I thought I was protecting you by keeping you out of it." The taste of blood mingled with the sour bitterness in her mouth. Disgusted and furious, she spit at Mira’s feet and glared at her defiantly. "You’ve broken your oaths and shamed us all!"
"I know that! Don’t you think I know that?" Mira shouted at her. "Stop making this harder for me!" And she suddenly lunged forward, thrusting the knife towards her.
The captain was ready for her though, and allowed the traitor in close enough to grab Mira’s wrist and push it away from her body as she grappled with her reluctant enemy. The dark haired woman shoved Kiran back and off balance, following up with a sharp kick in the ribs. For the second time that night Kiran fought for air even as she struggled to ignore the explosion of pain that threatened to double her up on the muddy ground.
Mira’s tremulous smile goaded her anger, and she glanced up in time to see the knife arcing towards her in its downward descent. A blur of motion from her peripheral vision was all the warning Kiran had when something flew out of the darkness and slammed into Mira, breaking off the attack and giving Kiran an unexpected reprieve.
The burly form of Agnes grunted and fought, and Kiran lurched to her feet, one hand pressed against her chest. She turned to face the wall and raised her other hand to draw her second’s attention. "We are betrayed!" she screamed to him. "Abort the mission!" It was all falling down around her. Like a fool, she had felt for a brief moment that they would actually make it. But now… oh gods… the tunnel… A grave expression on his face, Dalis nodded once and began barking orders left and right.
Have to get them out of here, she thought frantically. "Break and run!" Kiran yelled hoarsely to those who remained. The four survivors abruptly disengaged and ran for the wall where a multitude of knotted ropes had been dropped over the side from above.
Stephicles’ men pressed forward attempting to block their escape or cut them down, but more arrows were fired at their ranks creating wave after wave of painful dissuasion to hold the raiders back. As quickly as those along the wall could manage it, the volunteers were hauled up and over to safety.
"Run!" she heard them call to her from the catwalk. Unwilling to leave any of her people behind however, Kiran bent to grab a discarded sword and ran back to where a pile of bodies attested to the efforts it was taking to subdue Agnes. Kiran wasn’t going to give her up without a fight, especially not after the recruit had saved her life. A few good blows got their attention and within moments Kiran had all the attention she could handle and then some. More and more raiders joined in the fray and distantly the captain could hear Dalis telling their archers to stand down. In some part of her mind, Kiran realised that he wouldn’t want to risk her or Agnes getting hit by the very fire that was meant to help them. So it was up to the two of them to get out of this tangle. Kiran kicked and punched, and felt her sword nearly ripped from her hands, but she managed to retain her grip long enough to bury the length of iron in another man’s chest. Her victim’s screams mingled with her now constant stream of curses and snarls.
"Cap’tin, get away!" Agnes yelled as she tossed another of the raiders off her back.
Hands grabbed her from every which way, bearing Kiran into the ground and twisting an arm up painfully behind her back. "Too late," Kiran gritted out between clenched teeth. A pair of boots walked into view and then Mira squatted down beside her, the former acolyte sporting a bruised cheek and a split lip. Somehow it made Kiran feel better.
"Definitely too late," Mira nodded at the men holding her down. "Get them both to their feet."
The two women were lifted roughly and, at Mira’s gesture, shoved towards the battered gate and into better view of the faces peering anxiously over the stonework. "Looks like you guys left a couple of folks behind," she called out, a tight smile on her face. "That was pretty careless, especially since ol’ Kiran here…" She chucked the captain on the shoulder, "is so important to your cause. Such as it is. In case you were wondering, we’re going to take her back to our camp and poke at her with something sharp for a while. Beat her up. Knock her around. Then stake her stake dead, naked body out here for the crows to pick over."
The words were spoken flatly, as if by rote, and Kiran stared hard at Mira, realising that the other woman took no joy in this. Her gaze tracked upwards where silence reigned on the wall, but Kiran could see the looks of impotent anger and despair on the faces of her people. The tunnel, Dalis. Seal up the tunnel. As surreptitiously as she could, she met her second’s eyes and with a slight motion, vaguely tipped her head in the direction of the sewer drain. He lifted his head and blinked, and she hoped that she had been understood.
Dalis leaned forward on the wall and began to laugh, the only sound to be heard in the tense silence except for the falling rain. The hard expression on Mira’s face faltered, and a look of angry chagrin took its place. "You think this is funny?"
Kiran felt a similar look creep over her own face as the same thought occurred to her. She wasn’t even sure she had ever heard Dalis laugh. The sound bounced off the walls and into the night.
"Little girl, I think you’re in a lot of trouble," was all he said and, to everyone’s amazement, he simply turned and left the wall.
Kiran chuckled. She couldn’t help it. So the cuff and abuse that followed weren’t unexpected. With luck though he was already on his way towards securing the tunnel and closing off the warehouse.
"You wanna play it that way? Ok. I can do that," Mira said quietly still looking up at the spot where Dalis had stood.
Some time later, Kiran would recall the moment and realise that she had seen the exact second that Mira had made her decision. But, in that moment, something told her what was coming and she felt time slow as she watched Mira swing around to face the prisoners, the glint of death in her hand as the knife hummed through the air. Kiran struggled to break free, her scream of warning turning to a howl of disbelief as the edge of the blade was ripped across Agnes’ throat in one swift, hard motion.
The woman’s eyes and mouth popped open in shocked surprise, and the wound gaped open grotesquely as blood sheeted down the front of her uniform. "Gluck! Unghhk!" The wet noises were abruptly replaced by a gout of blood erupting from her mouth and throat, and in spite of the arms holding her, the stronger woman pulled free long to put both hands to her neck and take a single step. Her tall body gave a great shiver before she collapsed to the wet earth, dead and silent.
Kiran pulled and fought, but a sword hilt to the back of her head knocked her to her hands and knees. Tears of pain and loss threatened to spill, but pride kept them in check. Raising her head, she watched as Mira looked down and away. With a deep breath, she finally walked over to the body and wiped it on the back of Agnes’ uniform. The act of disrespect fuelled her resolve and Kiran forced herself climb to her feet before Mira came over to stand in front of her. "You didn’t have to do that," she said, breathing hard.
"Yes, I did," Mira replied, her dark eyes pained and angry. "She was an example and we didn’t need her alive. The men expected no less."
It wasn’t a good enough reason, Kiran felt. "You could have killed me. Isn’t what this trap was for? To kill me?"
"Yes. But at this point, I may as well just bring you back to camp. Stephicles will probably want to have the satisfaction of killing you," she told her. Then added as an afterthought, "Him or Ares."
"If I get out of this, I’m going to going to come looking for you," Kiran responded with a tight smile. "I’ll look forward to watching you die."
Mira gave a soft snort of derisive laughter and shook her head. "I doubt you’ll live so long." She turned and began walking away. "Bring her along."
Kiran was hauled along behind the other woman, guarded at sword point. The bodies of her comrades lay sprawled on the road as they took her away, and she forced herself to look at each and every one of them as they passed by. It was so hard, but she had commanded them and they had died for her, for Neapolis, and for what was becoming a distant, and perhaps unreachable, dream of freedom. She could do no less for them now. For the sake of her troops on the wall, she looked over her shoulder and gave them a smile, uncertain whether they could even see it. "I’m not dead yet," she called upwards into the rain and darkness as a reminder to those left behind. A small ragged and defiant carried back to her and made her smile despite the aches and pains.
Not yet, she thought to herself glumly as she walked away from the gate and the safety of home. C’mon, Xena…hurry up. I’ve about played all my cards.
This would likely be her last mission. Where they had died for her, she was now determined to live. So long as she did, Neapolis would not fall.
She is searching. Fire and smoke obscuring everything. A sense of urgency pushes her forward. A dark hall where shadows echo. Forward. Footsteps in a fiery maze. Clanging metal. Forward. Soul-cutting screams. Forward. An open room. Grey light falls through a broken sky. A frozen tableau in silhouette. The spear-point through her chest. Shattered eyes of blue…
* * *
She was screaming when they woke her. They pressed her down onto the bed lest she injure herself further, and their voices tangled in her disordered mind even as the sweat-soaked sheets tangled about her body, both rendering her disoriented and immobile. Gabrielle lay there, trembling and out of breath, allowing the healers to comfort her with their soothing gestures as they bathed her skin with cool, refreshing water and replaced the knot of covers that carried the dank scent of her fear. The two men spoke softly and moved with quiet efficiency to avoid startling her.
Another presence came to sit next to her, and Gabrielle turned her head to find a woman there. Her short, wavy blonde hair framed a face both mature and smooth, only distantly touched with wrinkles at the corners of her dark blue eyes. Full white robes edged in gold thread draped her body in elegant folds, the material looking so soft that the bard had an almost irresistible urge to stroke it. Gabrielle’s eyes, however, were drawn back to the woman’s face and she was struck by the sense of confidence and calm serenity that she exuded. The wavering candlelight touched and highlighted features both harsh and gentle in the woman’s expression, and Gabrielle couldn’t help finding beauty in both. "I’m sorry," Gabrielle whispered, conscious of the fact that she likely had woken everyone in a three block radius with her screaming.
"An apology is quite unnecessary." The bard was given a reassuring smile before the woman took over the task of gently wiping her skin with the damp cloth.
"Who are you?" Gabrielle asked, confusion and disorientation still marring her thoughts. She looked around and felt a growing sense of unease. She didn’t know this place. "Where am I?" And just as quickly, another more important question followed sharply on the heels of the last. "Where’s Xena?"
"Slowly…" the woman said softly. "I am Agraulos of the temple of Athena. I rarely sleep and often wander the temple and ward at night to visit the patients. When I heard you calling out in your sleep I came to see if I could lend assistance. From what the healers have told me, you collapsed during a council meeting and were carried here by your friend. She stayed with you for a time and then left."
The priestess’ words brought back thin and shadowy moments that seemed to have taken place months ago instead of just yesterday morning. Dizziness… Xena threatening a man… the warrior cradling her in her arms… and then… Nothing. Her mind fastened on to the last of Agraulos’ words. "She left? Where did she go?"
Agraulos glanced towards the window and then back to her patient. "She’s on her way back to Neapolis with most of Kozani’s forces. It caused a considerable stir when she left. I’m surprised that all the noise didn’t wake you."
Gods, no…she closed her tightly for a moment. I knew you meant to leave me here, but at least you could have come to say good-bye. It cut something deep inside of her to know that even after all they had been through together, after all the things that had been said and shared, that Xena would disregard all of it and abandon her without a word. Tears of sadness and fatigue gathered in her eyes and she wiped them away before they could fall.
"Are you concerned for her? From what I saw, your friend looks strong and capable enough to take care of herself."
Strong and capable? She knew that Xena was definitely that. But that’s not all you are. I’d bet every last dinar we have that all that’s keeping you going right now is that warlord image and a mountain of guilt. I can’t let you do this alone. "I need to go," Gabrielle announced and began pulling herself upright with a stifled groan.
A hand on her chest halted her forward motion and then pushed her resisting body back down into the covers. "You," Agraulos told her, "are in no shape to go anywhere. Your friend was wise to leave you right where you are."
The priestess met her glare for glare, and finally Gabrielle relented. She would wait. Another opportunity might present itself later if she was lucky enough. Or clever enough. In the meanwhile… "Oh, I almost forgot to mention… I met Mira. She was doing well when we left her."
The priestess paused in her ministrations. "I’m sorry. Who?"
"Mira," Gabrielle tried again. "She’s an acolyte here in Kozani. Brown, curly hair? Dark eyes? She was left at the temple as a child because of the strong visions she has?"
Agraulos shook her head and leaned back. "I’ve been here a long time, Gabrielle, and I’m familiar with all of the members. I’m afraid there’s no one here by that name."
"What about at the temple of Zeus?"
"Gabrielle, there is no temple to Zeus in Kozani. These people are followers of the goddess."
The two women gazed at one another, equally perplexed. "But…" The echo of memories assailed her as something clicked in her mind at Agraulos’ words.
"I’m Mira, Daughter of Zeus."
"I wasn’t really kidding about the gift of prophecy thing…"
"A prophet, Gabrielle? Probably not."
If she ever wanted to change her calling she’d make a killing as a bard…
As a bard? Or… as a spy? She could still remember the sound of the rain in the background as Xena’s voice whispered the details of Stephicles’ plans in her ear. And if that’s the case… Gabrielle’s mind reeled. Then Mira knows our intentions. She had seen the acolyte’s signature beneath those of the other members of council as Laera’s scribe on the missive she herself had brought before the council here in Kozani. Such a tiny thing, but did she get a laugh out of it when she did it? A second realisation followed like a blow to the stomach; Xena would be walking straight into a trap. A dark chill underscored her fear and anger, and Gabrielle threw back the covers so violently that Agraulos shied back and off the bed.
"What are you doing?" she demanded as she watched the bard strip out of the gown the healers had helped her into and began pulling on her own clothes.
What am I doing? Her mind was going in so many different directions at once. But there was one thing she knew for certain. "Xena’s in danger," Gabrielle told her. "I have to catch up to her and warn her that Mira is the spy."
"You’re injured and in no condition to be riding across the countryside in the dark."
The bard chose to ignore that truth and instead sat down to begin the arduous task of lacing up her boots. "The people in Neapolis are doomed if they don’t get help. If she hasn’t already, Mira will probably find a way to get her information to Stephicles and that means that he’ll be prepared for Xena before she arrives," her voice slowed as she reasoned it out aloud. "Xena’s likely counting on surprise to help her, but without that, he’s got enough men that they could outflank her and win, and then Neapolis is really doomed." Gabrielle winced as she slowly stood up, her hand pressed against the bruise that still discoloured her mid-section. "And Stephicles will be on his way here next and I’ll bet you can guess why."
"You would risk yourself? Even knowing how great the danger is?"
Gabrielle turned away, her green eyes searching the shadowed corners. With a sure step she reached into the darkness and pulled her staff into the weak light thrown by the candle. There was comfort in its familiar surface, and Gabrielle closed her eyes for a moment as she took a breath. Turning back to Agraulos, she walked back and stopped just a short distance away, their eyes meeting. "When people hurt other people, everyone suffers for it," Gabrielle said softly. "It’s important that we help those who aren’t able to help themselves. Even in the face of danger or risk we must fight for the greater good, no matter what the cost…" her voice trailed off as she realised that she had echoed the warrior’s words exactly. "Xena taught me that," the bard finished softly. She turned away to face the window, her thoughts and feelings in turmoil.
Agraulos seemed on the verge of speaking, but subsided, content to merely watch and wait instead.
Gabrielle pinched the bridge of her nose, trying to dispel the persistent pull of fatigue and pain before speaking again. "I need a horse and some supplies." She turned to look at the priestess. "Would you be willing to help me?"
"Ambassador, I can do better than that," she replied. "If you’ll follow me?"
The bard nodded and followed the priestess as she turned walked with stately grace up the aisle to the doorway leading from the healer’s hall. Gabrielle felt clumsy and tired as she followed in the other woman’s wake, but doggedly kept up, her curiosity in full swing. "Where are we going? Is this the way to the stable? I don’t mean to be rude, but I am kind of in a hurry and -"
"Patience," Agraulos advised her, and Gabrielle could hear the iron tone of authority beneath her softly spoken words that brooked no disobedience.
Curbing her restless urgency was no easy task, but for some reason, Gabrielle had the distinct impression that this woman could stand toe to toe with Xena with a toss-up on the outcome. She followed closely behind as they passed along the relatively silent corridors. Torchlight illuminated their way, and within a few turns, Gabrielle was hopelessly lost. Confused and unable to wait any longer, the bard was about to speak when they passed through another doorway. Incense met her nose and soft candlelight lit her way as they entered a large, vaulted chamber. Ethereal voices from a loft above raised the tiny hairs on her arms and Gabrielle turned in circles, trying to view everything at once. Tall, narrow openings allowed in the clean scent of rain to mingle with the headier mix of beeswax and frankincense. The feeling of age and reverent benediction hung in the air, part of the room like the tapestries and paintings that decorated the walls.
Cowled figures stood at the railings overhead and a few more knelt on the polished wooden floor before a marble statue of a woman, whom she could only guess was the goddess of war and wisdom herself. As she approached, she could see the painstaking detail taken with the facial features bestowing upon it a look both stern and proud. One pale, sandal-clad foot rested atop the shoulder of an attacking lion, the spear held in one hand thrust into the animal’s side. A great plumed helmet and breastplate overlaid the sculpture and its finery, the folds of cloth fluttering forever in a stone-swept breeze. The face of a man emblazoned the shield that rested against its leg, and its free hand was held outward. Whether in entreaty or invitation, Gabrielle could not be certain.
Mesmerised by its beauty, Gabrielle walked unseeing around the worshippers and stood before the effigy. The bard reached out almost without thought, seeking to touch the statue’s hand. A cough behind her broke the spell, and Gabrielle quickly snatched her fingers back as if burnt. She turned and found one of the worshippers glaring at her for her audacity.
He seemed on the verge of speaking when Agraulos lifted a hand to forestall him, "Do not fret, Theoples. She means no disrespect."
"Why have you brought me here?" Gabrielle asked, lifting a hand to indicate the temple’s spartan, yet elegant interior. With each passing moment, Xena was moving farther and farther away. The sense of urgency curdling her stomach increased knowing that the warrior would push her troops as hard as she could to get to Neapolis in time. In time to be killed if I can’t find a solution.
"You asked for my help, Gabrielle. Innocents are at risk, lives are in danger, and it is clear that your need is dire. I will give you my help," declared Agraulos as she herself stepped closer to the statue. "But I would know if you’ll accept that help."
Confused, Gabrielle stared into the deep blue eyes that regarded her in such a manner that the bard felt as though she were being weighed and measured. Given the alternative, her answer came easily. "I will."
"So be it," she replied. In one smooth gesture, the woman reached out and pulled the spear from the statue’s grasp, ignoring the sounds of startled and horrified protest that emanated from the other worshippers in the room. The haft broke free of the stone point embedded in the lion’s side and the length of dark, seasoned wood gleamed in the candlelight as Agraulos turned it in her hands. With ease, she held the haft aloft between them in one hand, its ends running parallel to the floor. "Then accept this, the Spear of Mercy, with Athena’s blessing. Wield it in the name of what is right, and just, in your quest."
"But… what of the danger of Stephicles getting the tribute if I fail? If I bring it with me…"
"Wherein lies the greater danger, Gabrielle? In failing? Or in failing to try?" The haft never wavered in Agraulos’ grasp as she spoke in that calm, cool voice.
"Will you accept it?" A note of compassion coloured the question, a question that seem to ask far more than it implied.
"I will," Gabrielle whispered. Her own staff was removed from her hand, she knew not how; all her focus was on the other woman. The bard raised her hands, her fingers closing around the shaft of wood with a sense of grim determination. The weapon vibrated in her grip, like a bell struck with unearthly force. A ringing tone filled the room, growing in intensity until Gabrielle, unwilling to release her hold, threw back her head in pain, her voice crying out to join the cacophony of sound as a blue-gold light burst forth from the shaft, blinding all within the room.
She was light, and sound, and air. She was everything, and nothing. She was breathless… mindless… nameless. And through it all she held on, the brilliant, shimmering light hiding her from view as a surge of power erupted through her, and Gabrielle screamed again. It could not be contained. The flare of light flashed blindingly again and just as suddenly winked out, the ringing tones fading away into the temples’ darkest corners. Released at last, Gabrielle shuddered and fell to her knees on the floor.
She gasped for air, her head bowed and her long hair hiding her features as the last vestiges of tingling power dissipated. Blinking a few times, the bard gathered her wits and, using the shaft for balance, slowly regained her feet. The bard took a deep, settling breath and abruptly paused. She did it again. No, there had been no mistake. Amazed green eyes sought out Agraulos who wore the ghost of smile on her face as Gabrielle lifted a hand to press against her side. There was no pain. She looked down at herself to see the barest remnants of a bruise. In shock, she turned her head and lifted her collar to examine her shoulder. All she could see was a scabbed cut, already looking weeks old. Experimentally, she moved her arm, and felt only a small, rough twinge, like a sore muscle, in response. Incredulous and happy, Gabrielle swung the spear haft like a staff, and grew even more excited as she realised what this meant. With an irrepressible grin she then flung herself at the priestess.
Startled, Agraulos could only catch the girl in her arms, and endure the breath-stealing hug that the bard gave her.
"You healed me," Gabrielle whispered gratefully. "I can’t ever thank you enough."
"Athena healed you, child. And I know that gift will be repaid in your efforts to save her people," the older woman replied. She drew back from Gabrielle and cupped the bard’s cheek in her cool palm. "There is a light in you that speaks to me of hope. It comes of having a good heart. Listen to it, Gabrielle, and you will find your way, even when beset by darkness."
Gabrielle nodded once and reasserted her grip on her new staff, even as she attempted to uncover the deeper meanings behind Agraulos’ words.
The priestess turned to look at the watching throng. "Theoples, please ask the groom to get my horse from the stable and bring it around to the front. The rest of you will gather these supplies for the Ambassador," she quickly made a list. "Go now. Urgency is required."
There were nods and bows from the group, and they dispersed immediately to fulfil her requests.
"You will be on your way within a few minutes, Gabrielle."
"And then it will be up to me," the bard said softly, feeling the reality of those words truly sink in.
A hand on her shoulder made her look up, and she wondered at the expression of stern pride that graced Agraulos’ features. "Come, I will escort you to the courtyard."
* * *
The rain fell hard and cold, and Gabrielle was grateful for the cloak that one of the priests had thought to include, her own having disappeared since her arrival in Kozani. With her staff packed into a saddlebag and the rest of the supplies likewise stowed securely away, there was no longer any reason for delay. The priestess’ mount, Chiaro, was a dark-coated mare with a white stripe down her face and equally dark eyes, and the bard paused to stroke her hand along the animal’s soft, wet muzzle and got a nickering response to her touch in return. The others had left her already, retreating into the dry safety of the temple. Agraulos had said her goodbyes already as well, with a whispered blessing and a dry kiss to her forehead to speed the bard on her way.
No, there was no more reason for delay, and Gabrielle was anxious to be gone. There was nothing for her here now. There was only the journey and the deep-seated need to find Xena before all was lost.
Her mobility restored to her, Gabrielle clambered into the saddle with the Spear held firmly in one gloved hand, and tapped the mare’s sides as she had seen Xena do countless times with Argo. The bard put her dislike of horses and heights from her mind with some effort, and concentrated on the road ahead as they cleared the gate. They picked up speed on the open road and Chiaro’s hooves splashed through the muddy puddles as they followed in the hours old tracks of Kozani’s army.
She would find Xena, but Gabrielle could only wonder if it would be in time.
His boots rang on the stone flooring as he marched, grim-faced, to the kitchens. With each step, rain dripped off his tattered and thread-worn uniform leaving a dark, damp trail in his wake. The marks were muddied further by the handful of troops that followed after him, their expressions nearly a match for their leader, but with additional tinges of anger and fear.
Without even a pause, Dalis strode into the kitchen and continued on toward the knot of council-members gathered around the massive table, its surface strewn with its customary cover of parchments and maps. Their voices were raised, and he could make out a number of conversations. Food. Medicine. Morale. Once he had considered them important too, but they no longer mattered. Not now. He pulled off his helmet and stuck it beneath his arm as he came to attention. With an effort of will he forced himself to seek out Laera’s eyes with his own. "Milady," he said, speaking only loud enough to get her attention.
One by one the voices fell silent as the members of council took in his hard expression and the clenching of the muscles in his jaw-line, as if he held back some great emotion.
The elderly councillor, a cup of steaming tea in her hand, came forward, her smile faltering as she felt a sense of cold dread come creeping through the room like a dense fog. "Lieutenant." She acknowledged him. "Your report, please." The request was issued in a husky voice, as if dragged reluctantly from her throat. Whatever news he possessed, her gut told her that she did not want to hear it.
"Milady," he began again, equally reluctant to speak. His place was to act, and this alteration in his role and what that meant, made him ill at ease. He had served her to the best of his ability; he would not let her down now. He took a breath and continued. "Captain Kiran left through the tunnel and attacked the catapult as planned. It was disabled and then destroyed by one of their own ballistas during the fight."
Sounds of excited relief peppered the background, but Dalis ignored them, his eyes still on Laera’s.
"Go on," she said over the voices of the others, sensing he was not finished.
"Of the fifteen volunteers that went out, only four returned," he told her in a flat voice.
Laera felt her heart pound anxiously, and she absently pressed a hand against her chest. "And Kiran?"
"Milady… she was taken," Dalis whispered brokenly through clenched teeth, his emotions finally getting the better of him. "We are betrayed. Mira is a spy and she somehow warned Stephicles of our plans. They were ready for us when the volunteers attacked."
The older woman’s teacup fell from nerveless fingers and shattered on the stone floor as voices of dismay stole the wind from their victory, brief as the moment had been. Laera trembled, and someone caught her as she swayed, the shock nearly more than her frayed senses could withstand. She stumbled as Bettina helped her to a bench, and the councillor raised a shaking hand to her brow. She had seen Kiran only a couple of hours before, looking so strong and resolute, so determined to do what was right and best for them all, even if it meant her life. To protect them. Even you, Mira. How could you do this? Oh, Mira… why? The memory of dark, laughing eyes came to her, and she recalled wondering earlier, with fond annoyance, why she hadn’t seen the girl in the past several hours. Yes, she thought bitterly, she had been fond of her. And that made this horrific news so much harder to accept.
Dalis couldn’t bear to watch as the councillor visibly aged before his eyes, her body succumbing to a palsied shaking like a tree beset by a fierce wind. She had always been so unflappable, so unaffected, even in the worst circumstances. They had rallied to her, but seeing how his news seemed to crush her spirit so completely, Dalis was at a loss. He lifted his eyes and stared sightlessly at the pots and pans stacked on a cutting block beyond her, deigning to render himself respectfully blind to her sudden loss of composure. "Mira tried to kill Kiran," he managed in a clipped tone, struggling to take up his report again as he fought to contain his own emotions at losing his captain. "Agnes… she tried to help her, but they both went down. Mira was threatening to hurt Kiran, but I could see the captain giving me a signal to seal up the tunnel before their army discovered it was completely open. I had to get off the wall right away," his voice trailed off and he looked elsewhere as he coughed and collected himself. "I… believe I am responsible for Agnes' death."
Laera lifted her head, her piercing eyes coming into focus. "That is nonsense."
Ignoring her comment, Dalis forced himself to continue. "I laughed at her, told her she was in trouble, and then left the wall without even giving her a chance to offer terms of surrender. One of the militia told me afterwards that Mira… took Agnes’ life." There was no purpose to telling them how the soldier had died. "I took a group with me and discovered that Drefin and Salimas had both been murdered. That’s how Mira got out… through the tunnel. I don’t know how she did it undetected with soldiers on the wall right above her," he shook his head in consternation. "The walls are badly weakened, and the gate is virtually useless. Kiran’s volunteers bought us more time, but if they make another all-out assault on the gate, we’re through," Dalis finished bleakly, and tried to still the faint tremble in the hand that clenched the sword hilt hanging at his belt.
"Has there been any sign of Xena?" Laera asked in a soft voice.
"No, milady." He shook his head slowly. "There has been no sign of anyone."
The words caused a tight, weighted silence in the room. And at length, Laera turned to looked away to stare at the fire, her thoughts scattered and shot through with numb shock. One thought among many kept surfacing over and over, however. "And the captain? What of her?" Thinking of what Kiran had been willing to risk, the betrayal made her loss hurt all the more.
One of the other militia behind Dalis stepped forward. The pale and downcast youth fidgeted and looked to the lieutenant before speaking. At the Dalis' nod of encouragement, the young man spoke up. "They bound her arms behind her, and when they led her back to their camp she called back to us on the wall. ‘I’m not dead yet’, she said. We watched as long as we could, and Kip thinks they took her to Stephicles' tent. Someone’s always up on the gate to watch and to… to…" He faltered and bit his lip hard, unable to continue.
"To what?" Bettina asked in a whisper, her hand resting on Laera’s shoulder to get comfort as much as give it.
"To listen for Kiran. In case they torture her," the elderly councillor finished bluntly for him in her rough voice. "Isn’t that so?"
"Yes, milady," he answered as he blinked several times. "We… we can’t do nothing. We can’t…" He looked as though he would cry.
Laera stood, the shock of the news still reverberating through the room in the blanched and frightened faces of her people. Her steps were slow, but steady, as she approached the boy, for by her estimations he could not have seen more than seventeen years at best. She watched as his breathing roughened and his jaw worked. "You can’t do anything. Except stand a vigil, yes?"
He nodded, and a single, reluctant tear was jostled loose to dampen his cheek.
"You honour her and her sacrifice for us. There is no shame in that." Laera put out a hand to cup the back of his head, her slate eyes searching his. "As Kiran has reminded us; she is still alive. And Xena once said that winning means holding onto all the resources we can, even if it hurts. Well, we’re a stubborn lot. We’ll hold on to that, and not give an inch without a fight. We’re not done yet," she said and turned to look around the room hoping to the gods that the despair she truly felt was not evident in her voice or expression.
"Dalis." She made her voice stronger now, and watched the man come to attention in response. "What do you recommend at this stage?"
"Keep doing what we’re doing," he replied firmly without hesitation. "Kiran wouldn’t want us to give up."
"No." She gave a wan smile. "I can’t see her having any patience for that."
"No, ma’am," he replied with a pained smile of his own.
"Continue with the normal rotations that Kiran set up before she left. Spread the word about the catapult being destroyed. If people ask about Kiran, let them know that she’s still alive. I want to keep morale up as much as possible. Emphasize that Xena is on her way. There’s still the ghost of a chance that help is on the horizon. The rest of you..." She waved a hand at her fellow councillors, "take inventory on our supplies, visit the injured, get some rest and eat, and do what you can to keep the people’s spirits up. I have some documents to read and some paperwork to draft. Let’s get to work."
As Dalis signalled to his troops and turned to go, Laera called out his name. "Lieutenant. Stay a moment, please."
He spoke quickly to one of the militia, and watched by her side as everyone, still stunned and rather quiet, filed quickly from the room. "Councillor?"
Laera waited a moment longer and then seated herself on the bench. "I want to know how much longer you think we can last. And don’t coddle this old woman. I’m tougher than you think."
He knew that, but at the same time, he couldn’t help but see the weary cast to her shoulders, nor the deep, shadowed lines of her face. Like the town, Laera was showing the effects of the devastating siege and, like the gates that stood battered and cracked, he wondered how much more the woman could stand. "No more than a day. Maybe two at most," he said and watched as she valiantly absorbed the weight of those words and their implications. "It depends on how much force they want to use to break them down. Without a miracle Neapolis will be theirs very shortly, milady."
"Do you think we should surrender?" It was a horrible thought that went against the grain of everything she believed in. But she had to ask. If there was any way to spare her people…
His mouth worked a few times before giving his response. "No." A short pause. "He'll still rape, murder, and pillage. We've been too defiant to expect any mercy."
The same thought had occurred to her, and she looked down at her hands with their faint dotting of burn scars that covered the backs of her hands. She had been defiant then, too, and look where it had led them all. "We must… protect the children for as long as we can. The women too, if possible. We'll need to find places to hide them." Her voice faltered for a moment. Her overwrought emotions were slipping the rough restraints meant to keep her focused. "We must… " She paused, and fought the tremble that had entered her voice. "We must not give up hope."
Dalis stepped forward and watched with sorrow as tears gathered in her flinty eyes. He was a quiet and stoic man, uncomfortable with his feelings, but he could see the truth in her eyes and knew she knew the reality of their situation. Awkward and hesitant, he lifted one hand and slowly placed it on her narrow and shaking shoulder, offering what meagre comfort he could. "We won't give up," he murmured in reassurance. And this time he did not look away from her as she wept.
Demicles and his remaining men ghosted through the dark, wet forest, shadowing the army that moved at a far better rate than he expected. Attacking them with a dozen and a half men would be idiocy, and he was content to bide his time until a likely opportunity presented itself.
And if it doesn’t, he decided as his horse traversed the wet and leaf-choked spaces between the trees, we’ll simply turn and run. In which direction, however, was still an unknown. The troops on the road looked strong and fit to his eye, and he mentally compared them to the group Stephicles had gathered. With the raiders on their side, the numbers tilted in Stephicles’ favour, but Demicles wasn’t as interested in that outcome as he was in dealing Xena some damage. Paybacks for like kindnesses, he thought vengefully as he rubbed his swollen and infected side.
He had sat at the edge of the woods overlooking the long fields towards Kozani. Sitting and waiting with only his troops’ grumbling and his own sadistic thoughts to keep him company as he waited for Xena’s next move. He would continue to watch. And wait. But he would take his chance when it came. Cut off the head of the snake, and the body will die, he thought savagely. How much better to stop her little rescue mission in mid-step then by taking her out of the picture completely?
And then let the fool deal with the fact that I won this war for him. He thought it over for a few minutes, savouring the idea and imagining Stephicles’ anger and embarrassment. Why couldn’t there be more than one candidate for Ares’ Chosen?
With that thought to chew on, he gave a signal to his men and they continued onwards in the inky shadows of the woods that hid their passing.
* * *
The wind whipped the rain across the mud-slicked road, and Xena snarled and shook her head as another sharp gust blew her hood off. Her long, dark hair was knotted and soaked, and she flung it back with a hiss of annoyed frustration. Cold, muddy water dripped from Argo's underbelly, and with a glance at herself, the warrior could tell she wasn't faring any better.
The others struggled along behind her in ragged columns, but despite the weather and their staggered speed, Xena knew they were making better time than she had any right to expect. They had ridden hard for hours along the dark stretch of road leading towards Neapolis, and even with her riding up and down the lines, encouraging and commanding for them to match Argo's stride, the army was beginning to slow. They'll need a break soon. And it's probably time to get a look at whoever's making my neck itch. She had felt a presence out in the darkness pacing them as they travelled, and she had tolerated it for this long, but no farther. This distance from Kozani it can only mean trouble. Her fingers traced the design of the chakram hanging from her waist and she felt an anticipatory tickle of dark excitement at the thought of working out some of her frustration.
The sound of another rider's approach interrupted her thoughts, and she looked over to find Taelere angling his horse to match hers. "Xena."
"How loudly are they muttering back there?" she enquired, able to sense what was coming.
The General wiped his glove across his face before answering. "Not quite as loudly as before you changed the rotation. Dividing them up and having them take turns at the front of the group made a huge difference. For a while there, I thought we'd be mired in the mud or have the lot of them go lame."
"Now they're all equally as miserable. Which is what you want to talk to me about," she added, her eyes scanning the roadway in front of Argo and trying to balance herself as the mare sought out solid ground in the deceptively slippery muck.
"We've been riding for hours now," he pointed out. "They're tired and I think it's time to stop."
Even though his words mirrored her own thoughts, she chafed at the delay. But her cause would hardly be served by running the horses to their deaths. "Order a two hour break and make it a cold camp with skeleton sentries," she stated briskly. "And you have the command. I’m going to have a look around."
He raised an eyebrow at her. "Expecting trouble already?"
"Just a precaution." She wasn't prepared to tell him about the watcher just yet. "Gather the section leaders together for a meeting. Give them their instructions as I gave them to you, but warn them that they’re subject to change depending on what we find when we arrive." Taelere nodded and then dropped back to speak with his squires. She could hear fragments of the conversation as he repeated her orders, and they dispersed to order a halt, leaving Xena to direct Argo off the road and into a more protected spot under a stand of trees.
The rain still dripped down over them, but she was grateful for the respite from the constant wind. Argo flipped her mane and dropped her head, her whole posture indicating fatigue. "Sorry, girl," Xena murmured and patted her withers. "It's going to be a long haul yet." She swung a leg over and felt the ground give beneath her boots as she dismounted. Leaning against Argo, she shifted slightly to relieve some tension in her back and thighs, and released a controlled breath when she felt the constant ache in her back flare into a burning pain that demanded her attention. Xena allowed herself to feel the injury long enough to ascertain its seriousness and then, as with all the other physical discomforts she had garnered in the past week, pushed it to the back of her mind and ignored it.
Doesn't matter, she reminded herself morosely. I'll be dead in a few days anyway. Her fists curled into the fur lining of the saddle blanket. She was taken aback by the sudden and unexpected longing for another way out that emerged from the dark quagmire of regrets constantly pulling at her soul. I know I don’t deserve it, but… I… I don’t know that I’m ready to die. Not yet. It was a surprise. A year and a half ago, she had been ready to bury her belongings and fall on her sword. And after meeting Gabrielle, she could see how she might find a way to make amends though haunted by the horrors of her own past. But now… now… she actually felt like she could maybe do more than exist. Felt that she could maybe wake up and find some other reason to keep going than the next warlord to kill or problem to solve. The pair of green eyes that went along with that thought were quickly dismissed. Xena gave one brief, bitter laugh at her own expense before throwing herself into the task of seeing to Argo’s needs. No good would come of reaching for the unattainable. And everything about Gabrielle spoke of that.
A quick check of Argo’s hooves and a feedbag were the extent of the care Xena could offer, but she ran comforting hands over the cold, wet hide and murmured promises in the mare’s ear. She would speak with Taelere. Perhaps someone can see to her after…afterwards. Her thoughts stopped cold as she realised one further consequence of her actions. Gods damn it. You chose this, she reminded herself. Now get moving.
The warrior pulled her cloak closer around her body and stalked through the mud to where the soldiers were making a temporary camp, standing or squatting by their mounts and talking as they ate their meal of cold trail food. She took the time to speak to a few, inquiring as to their well-being and cracking the occasional joke about the weather or the wear of saddle leather on the anatomy. They didn’t know her, and likely no one could tell that her attentions were forced. Which was fine with her, the only one who knew her was miles away and for the moment it was a relief to be isolated and alone. Or so she kept telling herself.
Taelere waved her over, and Xena joined the group of soldiers gathered around a small, flickering lantern. She could see the remnants of a map in the mud at her feet, its lines and ridges quickly filling with rainwater. "This group will go with you," he began.
"No. They’ll rest and see to themselves and their horses," she corrected and then spoke to the others. "I want a report from each of you on the condition of your men and mounts. Let me know if any are injured or lame. Got it?" At their nods, she turned to their general. "Walk with me."
Once out of earshot of the others, Taelere broke the silence. "You risk yourself needlessly-"
"Do not second guess my orders." She spoke in a low, hard voice. "If I tell you to do something, I want my instructions followed. There’s more at stake here than you realise."
"Then tell me." His own temper flared. "You want me to trust you? And allow my troops to fight under your command? Then you had better fill me in on exactly what you’re planning to do." Taelere put his hands on his hips and exchanged look for look with her. "And you can start by telling me who the Hades is following us in the woods out there."
Her respect for him went up another notch. Oh, you’re good, aren’t you? It was heartening, to say the least. Xena thought it over briefly, trying to decide how much to tell him. "We might have some uninvited tagalongs from Stephicles’ army." Bandits or raiders, either way I should be able to take care of it.
"And you’re going out there alone?" Taelere was incredulous. "Do you want to explain to me how it’s going to help the Neapolitans if you get yourself killed in a skirmish with bandits?"
"No, I don’t," she replied harshly. "Get something to eat and rest. Time’s running out."
"This is madness!" Taelere declared angrily.
"These are my orders," Xena's voice fell to a dark rumble, a snarl on her face. She wasn't about to risk the lives of any of Kozani's troops if there was danger out there; they were needed for a bigger task. And the warrior was confident that if there were any undesirables in the area, she would be able to spot them before she was detected and decide how she wanted to handle it.
She watched interestedly as he swallowed his anger. His face was a hard mask when he turned and called one of the squires forth. The young man led a horse forward and presented the reins to her.
"I took the liberty of having a spare ride brought up for you." The muscles in his jaw bunched with the effort to remain calm. "As you have commanded, I won't bother to do so again."
Xena ignored the squire and stared hard at Taelere. A decisive step forward brought her into his personal space and the ice blue of her eyes seemed to burn him, but he stood his ground. "You have the command while I’m gone," she told him, aware of having earned his enmity by not showing more trust. "And if I don't return within two hours, you'll take them and continue on towards Neapolis. Understood?"
He gave one short, sharp nod. "Understood."
"Good," she replied briskly, not having the time or patience to coddle his feelings. The warrior stripped off her cloak and tossed it to the squire, seeming oblivious to the cold rain as she turned and calmly walked away. With each step her posture became more predatory and she felt a small, nasty smile touch her lips.
Xena's awareness expanded as she entered the confines of the winter woods. The sensation of the General's eyes on her back dissipated the further she went, and she very nearly hoped that the presence she had sensed the past several hours was hostile. I could use a bit of a workout, she mused. The itchy edginess that tingled through her nerves had left her feeling restless and caged all night, and her fingers clenched and unclenched as she moved with smooth animal grace between the trees.
The warrior paused, allowing her senses to settle as she took in the sounds of the forest. The constant fall of the rain and the low howl of the wind through the naked branches were filtered away. They belonged and could therefore be ignored. She opened her mouth and breathed deeply, tasting and smelling the rain and bark, the dirt and the pine needle scents that hung in the moist air. These, too, she detected and as quickly dismissed. Xena tilted her head to one side, her eyes narrowing in concentration as she extended her senses further.
Her utter stillness was broken by the twitch of her brows. There. A clink of metal. The squelch of wet mud underfoot. Blue eyes took on a darker light as Xena went into motion. She ran quickly and quietly over the damp ground, instinctively avoiding the gnarled roots and treacherous spots underfoot. The warrior could feel the blood singing her ears, the rush of adrenaline that flooded her system. Her quarry was ahead of her, still ignorant of her presence. With a practised leap, she grabbed onto a branch overhead and quickly pulled herself up and into her new-found perch.
In the dim light Xena could make out a man in armour. He held his sword out before him as he walked, slowly and cautiously, toward the roadway she had just left. At this close range she confirmed her suspicions; definitely one of Stephicles' men. The style of armour and weaponry declared themselves plainly. Calculating eyes flicked past him and discovered at least three more men standing a ways off. The smell of wet leather and horse were detectable now, and she had the feeling that these were no simple raiders. The single fighter's approach had brought him almost beneath her tree, and the warrior crouched down to slip her boot dagger free of its sheath.
C'mon… a little closer, she breathed to herself. Her unsuspecting target took another step closer. The warrior abruptly flung herself backwards, hooking her knees around the branch as she did so, and swung down just behind the man. One arm wrapped around the man's face, effectively smothering any of his protests as her other hand slammed the blade of her knife deep in the back of his neck, severing his spine. They hung suspended there for a long moment as he gave his final twitches and died. Carefully, she dropped him next to the tree, her eyes constantly watching the other group. Getting out of the tree was an easy matter and she crouched again and waited, ensuring her cover. The dead man's body was limp and heavy as she picked it up and slung it over her shoulder, but it wouldn't concern her for long.
It was far too easy a task to close with them. She moved constantly, the muscles her thighs outlining themselves in stark relief as she kept low to the ground. Slow and smooth, through the deeper shadows of the trees that stood impervious and uncaring of the activity unfolding below. The weight of the man hindered her only slightly, and as she drew closer, Xena allowed herself a sudden burst of speed, attacking in eerie silence. She tossed the corpse at one man, leaving his scattered wits to deal with the body slamming into him while she flung her chakram at a second. In the same, smooth motion she pulled her breast dagger free and threw it with all her strength at the last soldier standing. The narrow blade caught him in the chest and he grunted once before falling into the leaf debris littering the forest floor. With a savage motion the sword came loose from her scabbard and she leapt forward to drive the tip of it through the struggling man still trying to free himself from beneath the body of his comrade. She impaled him on her sword and drove it deep through bone and tissue into the wet ground below. Impassively, Xena watched as the realisation of his death came over him, the lines of surprise and fear turning slack and empty with his passing.
With one knee in the mud and her hands wrapped around the hilt, Xena paused. Silence reigned amid the drip and plinks of rain. She breathed. Pine and bark filled her nose along with the coppery tang of blood and the musty scent of leather and rainwater. Satisfied, the warrior wrenched her blade loose and quickly retrieved her other weapons from the dead before slipping away and further into the trees.
Each step brought her closer to their camp. She could hear voices now. Low laughter. Flickering light from a weak and shielded campfire outlined perhaps a half dozen more men. They spoke softly, and Xena moved nearer until the old, dark hollow of a lightning scorched tree offered a convenient spot from which to observe them.
"-this big. And did you see her tits?" One man joked crassly, holding his hands out in front of his chest. "They're ripe for picking 'round here."
"And ploughing, eh, Joss?" A chorus of raucous laughter followed.
"Aye, well, what else are they good for?" Came the rejoinder. "Any sheath for my sword."
"Unless her sword's bigger than yours!" Another round of laughter.
"Yeah, I'd love to see you try to stick it to Xena."
"Aww," the man waved them off. "She's probably not even a woman."
"Well, she's surely more of a man with a sword than you'll ever be!"
She listened to the laughter and friendly insults that were tossed back and forth over the fire. One of them, more quiet than the others leaned forward, and Xena could hear his voice clearly over the others. "Are we really just going to bring her back to Stephicles?"
"No," a rough, but familiar voice replied. "Stephicles can go to Tartarus. I've decided that we've earned some sport." With his back to her, Xena couldn't make out who the man was, but she was certain she knew him. "She's evaded me for days now, but as soon as she takes one wrong step, I'll make her wish she had never been born."
From her covert position Xena gave them all a small, dark smile. Oh, you can try.
"Aren't you worried though?" Another asked, plainly worried himself. "Their army is right over the rise."
"Relax," came the response. "They don't have a clue we're here." She watched as he shifted and gave a small grunt of pain. Xena's gaze narrowed speculatively as he put his hand to his side.
"Still botherin' ya? Who'da thought a woman could knock it to ya like that, " one commented, seemingly awed at the thought.
"Shut up, Nikele," growled the man. "I'll give her what she deserves soon enough."
She watched as he took a sip of his drink, unaware that the object of his scorn was lying in wait not more than fifteen feet away. The warrior's mind was already in motion, considering how best to kill them with as little fuss as possible. Except for you. She directed this last thought towards the man drinking from his plain and battered cup. We have a conversation to finish… Demicles.
Xena rolled carefully around to the other side of the trunk and counted the men over by the horses, some of whom were resting under hastily constructed tarps. Thirteen or fourteen, she estimated to herself. Nice odds. Probably just enough to work the kinks out.
She was looking forward to this. Though technically she had been working towards getting help for Neapolis all this time, it was going to be a nice change to do so in a more… hands-on approach. She licked her lips in anticipation and deliberately allowed the door to swing open on the darkness inside that, until now, had been kept mostly caged and controlled.
The rain added cover to the darkness as she stood and stealthily made her way toward the horse pickets. Her sword felt lighter and easier in her hand and the razor edge of the chakram rested comfortably in the gloved palm of the other. Fools, she laughed inside as she moved with almost inhuman grace toward her destination. The rain masked her scent and the horses barely noticed her as she edged behind another tree merely a few feet from their resting-place.
The leather of her glove tightened on her sword hilt and the calmness took her as her eyes, glittering with reflected firelight, turned focused and cold. All thoughts of Neapolis faded. The green eyes that joyfully haunted her soul were banished. Rage and hunger remained, and a mindless pain seeking release in bringing pain to others who deserved it no less than she.
She exploded without warning from her cover with her weapons in hand and her teeth bared in a terrifying smile. Xena threw herself forward into a dead sprint and, aided by the momentum, threw her body parallel to the ground to use the side of tree to launch herself into a flip.
"Ai-yi-yiyiyiyiyiyiyi!" Her voice shattered the night air. Borne on the wings of their words, she landed amongst them in a deep crouch. Dark, wild hair framed a face pale and strained creating a start contrast between the ice blue eyes of her eyes and the runnels of blood on her skin. Her eyes moved smoothly over them and they stared back at her in unmoving, breathless silence. "Time to die," she announced softly. And smiled.
The camp filled with chaos and shouts as she fell on them, a thing of beauty and horror that maimed and killed without mercy. The firelight caught the flickering edges of the blade as it cut through space and flesh, stroking the air with a decisive hum. Fighting or escaping, their efforts were futile, and she laughed as they screamed, cursed them as they died. They were not enough to drown the rage, to sate the hunger. And the pain grew greater than before.
At last the Warrior Princess rose from the dead man beneath her, plucking her chakram from his belly as she did so. She shook it once to rid it over the eviscerated entrails that stuck wetly to its surface and turned to examine the rest of their camp, her eyes searching intently. Ah…She hadn't killed him by accident then. Good. Her eyes narrowed and the smile reappeared when she realised that the hunt wasn't over just yet.
Demicles stood a ways off with his sword in hand, awaiting her approach. "You're not going to beat me a second time, Xena."
"You're already dead." Her voice was coldly certain and she continued towards him, taking one slow step after another. He wouldn't be getting away. Xena watched as the commander set his position and raised his weapon in readiness. Neither fear nor worry was evident in his features. "A murderous, soulless, thieving piece of scum like you doesn't deserve to live."
"Like me? Like us! Your hands are bloodier than mine, woman, so don't give me that virtuous warrior crap," he lashed back. "Do you think I don't know what bloodlust looks like? You enjoyed their deaths!" He pointed behind her at the bodies strewn across the ground. "Fighting for these filthy, ignorant peasants doesn't change the fact that you're a killing machine and a monster. So don't try to wrap it all up nice and pretty to disguise the fact that you want to stick your sword in my heart. I saw what was left of the men you killed in the forest outside of Neapolis!"
They were only words, but they bit more sharply than the blade he held ever could. All the more so because they were true. And that knowledge burned like bile in the back of her throat until she was very nearly sick with it. Like claws dragging at her heart, the depression and self-loathing barely held at bay all this time now threatened to pull her down and consume her. All true, and the carnage behind her bore grisly testament to it. She was lost and there was no way back. So be it… "Then I’ll see you in Tartarus, " she replied with grim finality as she closed the distance in one quick stride, bringing her sword up with ferocious intensity.
Squealing sparks erupted where their blades met, and Demicles held firm against her onslaught. He shoved back with all his strength and succeeded in pushing her back a step and grinned at her. He was goading her, Xena could tell, but she refused to be drawn into his mind games further. The flurry of motion that followed was probing and wild as they sought a hole in each other's defences.
Demicles shoved again and as she slipped a little in the mud, he pulled his sword across her arm in a shallow cut. He crowed at the sight, and Xena growled in response. The muscles of her back protested as she bobbed and ducked his powerful strokes, and it annoyed her to no end that the wound in his side seemed to be slowing him not at all.
"I am the better fighter," he rasped at her with a perfectly serious face and executed a quick strike that Xena felt whisk through the air next to her ear as she tilted her head at the last moment. "Your time is past." He followed up the insult with a hard blow to the jaw with the crosspiece of his hilt. And blinked when the hit appeared to have left her completely unfazed.
A sharp crack of her neck was heard as Xena tilted her head in the other direction. "In your dreams," she murmured and smiled dangerously back at him. The warrior suddenly surged forward, her sword a blur as it engaged and tossed his aside, nicking and cutting whatever she could reach. They moved back and forth across the muddy ground and she laughed as their blades locked. She let him pressed against her, watched as the strength of his arms tested hers in this battle of wills. He smiled back at her, then abruptly plunged their swords downward into the mud, released his hilt and elbowed her across the face in a stunning blow, knocking Xena off her feet.
Demicles gave a wild cry as he pulled his sword loose from the earth and attacked her as she landed, meaning to drive his sword through her body and nail her to the ground. Victory was at his fingertips.
Xena gasped as she slammed into a log, her back unwilling to take more abuse. His yell refocused her attention and she looked up in time to see him rushing towards her, his sword brandished high. Instincts screaming at her to move were ignored and, at the last possible moment, she ripped loose the dagger concealed in her boot. The sword edge cut through the leather protecting her flank as Xena just barely rolled out of the way, and she slammed the blade into Demicles' chest, aided by the force of his momentum when she kicked his feet out from under him. He landed on her heavily and she turned the dagger in his chest.
"Better… than some," she breathed between pants. "Not better… than me." With that she pushed him off of her and watched his hands clutch at the leather-wrapped hilt.
Give him my regards, you bastard, she thought and listened to Demicles die. It did not take long.
She lay there in the mud and falling rain to catch her breath and to let her body come down from the addictive rush that had fuelled her lethal brand of justice. So tired… Everything hurt, inside and out, and she was so tempted to just stay there and sleep. Stupid, Xena. Come on. Get up.
"Alright, alright," the warrior muttered to the now silent woods. "I'm goin'."
She clambered to her feet, retrieved her weapons, and left as silently as she had come. She never looked back.
* * *
Taelere was there when she emerged from the forest, and his eyes widened at the woman's bruised face and bloodied armour. "My gods, what happened!"
Xena pushed past him, moving easily with an air of unconcern. "One of Stephicles' commanders was tracking us with about a score of men."
She reached Argo's side and patted the mare's nose when the animal whickered in greeting to her. "They're dead and won't be a concern."
Taelere shook his head and stepped closer, his voice a concerned and angry hiss. "Your orders be-damned, woman! You shouldn't have gone in there alone. Look at you! How much of that is yours?" She was so full of power and grace that he couldn't tell if she were wounded, but something in how she held herself told him that something wasn't right. And when Xena turned her gaze on him, he fully expected to be blasted with the rough side of her tongue again, but instead he was met with a look of infinite weariness and some small measure of amusement.
"Your soldiers are safe, as you wanted them to be. Leave it at that," she replied softly and turned her attention back to her horse which she ran her hand over with open affection. "Go now, but send someone to me when it's time to leave."
He stared at her for a long moment before giving her a fist on heart salute and reluctantly withdrawing.
He paused to look back, a quirk of a smile matching the look he had seen in those piercing eyes.
"Thank you for your concern."
He nodded and left, knowing like few others could her need to be alone.