~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
CHAPTER SEVENTY-EIGHT

The bucket of cold water dumped over her head finally roused her, and Kiran returned to consciousness with aching reluctance. Her body protested its confinement and she wearily tugged at the manacles that held her arms suspended overhead in a state of constant near-tingling numbness. She could barely feel her fingers at the moment and wondered how badly it was going to hurt when they finally let her arms down. If I live that long, she thought with a certain sense of bleary unreality.

Distantly, she recalled the struggle to get her in here and Kiran felt some grim satisfaction that it had taken four of their guards to subdue and chain her. Somewhere in the process, however, they had knocked her out in order to get the manacles on her. She hoped that the one she had kneed would be feeling it for some time to come. In the meanwhile, she shivered in the wet remains of her clothes. Boots, armour and outer clothes had been tossed in a corner, discarded like so much trash.

The iron cuffs cut into her wrists and chafed her cold, clammy skin raw. Bruises and blood gave evidence to her struggle, and she sighed as she attempted to regain her feet and retake some measure of her tattered dignity and pride. Such as it is, Kiran berated herself. Her head tilted back between her arms and she stared at the flapping tarp of the tent's ceiling wondering how much time had passed and what might have happened while she was... away.

Fear settled thickly in her stomach as she lifted her head and found several pairs of eyes watching her, including those of the man in the open leather vest at the back of the room. Something about him scared her, and Kiran swallowed hard as his dark eyes met hers and he smiled, almost warmly, when their gazes held. A miniature silver sword dangled from his left ear, its point leading her eye down the strong column of his neck to the unsubtle display of chest and muscle beneath his clothes. Ares, her mind supplied. Kiran's breath caught as she realised that she was in the same tent with a God. And not just any god, but the God of War. And he was smiling at her. That couldn't be a good sign, she decided. In fact... I think we're screwed. Suddenly, she blinked. Did he just wink at me? Did she have a head injury or did she really see that? Kiran couldn't decide.

Another man stepped into her line of view, a smaller, more compact version of Ares, strong and good-looking, but almost overshadowed by the dark presence in the back of the tent.

"Do you know who I am?" he asked in a pleasant tone.

Kiran peered at him for a moment and delayed her answer as she quibbled over how she wanted to handle this. Living, unpleasant as it seemed, was her primary goal. "Yes," she finally replied in a hoarse voice. She would delay them as long as she could and perhaps manage to buy Neapolis a little more time.

"Good," Stephicles replied and then waved someone forward. Another man came into Kiran's limited line of vision. By his dress, she guessed he was a high-ranking officer in the warlord's army and could only speculate as to the reason for his presence. When he stepped closer, she could see the lurid bruises that covered his face, made all the more disturbing by the look of baleful anger he gave her.

"May I introduce you to Commander Nader?" Stephicles looked at his commander. "Nader, I believe this woman is at least partially responsible for cooking a third of our men. And, as I'm sure you'll recall, I took out a great deal of my temper on you when you and Linus told me the news."

"Now, my dear," the warlord said as he turned back to her, ignoring the audible sound of his commander's teeth grinding together. "I realise that Xena did the actual deed, but as you are the only representative of Neapolis close enough, and seeing as the act was done on your behalf, I'm sure you'll understand if we decide to be upset with you instead."

Kiran's eyes jumped over Stephicles' shoulder in time to see Ares quirk another smile of enjoyment at her predicament. No help there. She quickly darted her eyes back to Nader and her breath grew short when she saw his fists began clenching and unclenching at his sides. Nader was a big man and a seasoned mercenary from the look of him. He would not be gentle with her. "What are you going to do?" she finally asked,

"Do?" Stephicles gave the appearance of considering the question. "I would like some information from you. Nader is present to encourage you to tell me the truth about what I want to know. And I'm certain he'll be very persuasive, if you take my meaning."

Kiran nodded, not really knowing what to say in response to that.

The boyish smile he gave her with its look of irrepressible enthusiasm seemed greatly at odds with the current situation. He went and sat down in a chair, with one leg casually thrown over the arm. "Now then, tell me about your half of the Spear of Mercy."

"May I have some water first?" Her tongue felt thick and hot in her mouth, and her head ached something fierce.

"Later. Maybe," Stephicles said. "Now talk, before Nader gets impatient." Indeed, the commander looked as though he couldn't wait to start beating her.

"We have the spear tip. I've seen it a few times. It's about a foot and a half in length and made of a metal I've never seen before." No harm in telling that much, at least, she hoped.

"Where is it kept?"

"I don't know."

"Nader?"

The punch rocked her head back and Kiran's vision speckled with light as blood ran down her chin. Her body quivered and folded, leaving her to hang painfully by her wrists.

"Next time, don't hit her in the mouth, I want to be able to understand her in the event that she has something useful to say."

The commander didn't reply, but rather towered over their prisoner, exuding a palpable menace.

"Again. Where is it kept?"

"I don't kn-"

A double-fisted blow to her ribs made her bite her tongue, and Kiran muffled a cry of pain as the hit acerbated the injuries and bruises accumulated over the last week. Peripherally, she noticed Ares wincing.

"One more like that and I'll allow Nader to proceed unhindered. For the last time, where is it kept?"

His calm manner and cleanliness in the face of her filthy condition irrationally irked her even in light of her own danger. Kiran spat blood on the floor of the tent and weakly replied, "I use it as a back-scratcher. It's under my pillow in the barracks." There was a snort of laughter from the back.

By the time Stephicles called for a halt to her punishment, Kiran was sure she would be peeing blood and could barely see out of one eye. Pain. All she could think or feel was the pain that lapped against her throbbing consciousness without surcease. So tired. How she wished it could all just be over. "Th' temple," she finally muttered through bloody lips. "I's in th' temple."

"See? That wasn't hard at all. But I want more," Stephicles pressed. "Where is it kept in the temple?"

Kiran didn't want to answer and stared at the floor of the tent, noting the mud that had been tracked in from all the recent activity. A fist in her hair made her gasp, and tears prickled her eyes. "I don't know," the captain wheezed.

Nader pulled harder until Kiran thought it would be ripped out at the roots.

"Better answer him," Stephicles prompted. "That looks quite uncomfortable."

"I don't know!"

The beating went on for longer this time, and Kiran could feel the darkness coming for her. Would death hurt? Could it hurt worse than this?

"She really doesn't know." A woman's voice lifted above Kiran's cries.

Nader paused to lick one of his knuckles and Kiran took advantage of the respite to collapse in her irons and catch her breath. Whoever had spoken had her deepest gratitude for stopping the constant rain of abuse, even if only for a short time. Prying her eye open, she sought out her saviour and was shocked to see Mira standing beside the God of War. Her traitor's face was pale and grim.

Ares' dark head turned to look down on Mira, and he raised an eyebrow in annoyed interest. Stephicles swung his leg over and stood up. "Oh? And why would you think that?"

"She was just a recruit before Captain Ilias was killed. Except for when it was displayed during a service, Kiran wouldn't know where the spear head is kept."

"Ah," the warlord said. "Which means that you knew all the time?" He strolled over to stand in front of her, his hands behind his back.

"All I know is that since the attack their clergy have taken the damn thing and hidden it. It's in the temple, but that's all I know," Mira stated. Kiran grudgingly gave her credit for maintaining her composed bravado under the combined anger of the two men who hovered over the former acolyte.

"Mira, I don't like being deceived," Ares said at last as he reached down and placed one finger beneath her chin to lift her eyes to his, "I gave you your instructions personally, didn't I?"

Kiran wondered why the other woman flinched when he emphasised his words.

"Yes," she answered quietly, looking for all the world as if she wished she were anywhere else but there.

That makes two of us, Kiran commiserated.

"Enough of this!" Stephicles broke in angrily. "We know its location enough to begin the last part of the attack." He pointed to Nader. "Order the men to prepare for the final assault. We're not going to stop until the gate is ripped off its hinges and we're inside. I want a contingent of men with ropes to use the horses to pull the gate down. I don't care how many men it costs!" The warlord shouted when he saw Nader about to object. "We'll pull it down, ride in, and take it from them!"

"What about her?" Nader asked and jerked a thumb in Kiran's direction.

"Keep her," Ares answered for him. "If we have trouble locating the spear point we can use her as a bargaining chip."

"Let's go," Stephicles ordered and strode from the tent with Nader in tow.

Ares looked after them and then returned his gaze to the woman still standing in thrall next to him. "You failed me."

"Please, Ares," Mira begged softly, for what, Kiran couldn't guess.

"You failed me. Not once, but twice. She," he pointed at Kiran without looking at her, "is still alive when I told you to kill her, and you neglected to mention that you knew the Spear's whereabouts." His large hand stroked the side of her face before gliding down to wrap around her throat.

"Please, Ares," Mira pleaded again. "Release me."

"You're mine!" His anger suddenly boiled to the surface. "This won't happen again." Their eyes met and whatever silent message was exchanged left the young woman's shoulders slumped in defeat. "Prepare my horse," the god ordered her in a harsh tone.

Kiran watched her nod and begin walking towards the door. As she passed, she watched the dark-haired woman's eyes meet hers, an expression of shamed regret barely hidden there.

Much became clear in that brief conversation and Kiran resentfully felt a kernel of pity for the girl. Even after all she had done. I want to hate her, she seethed. I do hate her. But, she felt sorry for her, too. Imagine being trapped in service to the God of War.

"It's not as bad as you might think," Ares' deep voice commented.

Kiran, startled, looked up fearfully to find him standing over her. How... "So you read minds, too?" How much else could he see? Had she given anything away?

"No," he answered with a shake of his dark head. "Though that would certainly solve a lot of my problems. In this case, it was written all over your face."

She breathed a mental sigh of relief and blurted out the first thing that came to mind. "Yeah? Well, working for you looks like it sucks. I wouldn't want to be her." It was bold and rash and... He's gonna kill me. She paused in her thoughts and decided that that would be an acceptable alternative to the headache that was threatening to make her sick.

Instead of the expected anger, Ares merely smiled. "Is that so?" He stepped closer, and Kiran's view was suddenly filled with Ares' coldly handsome face. For a brief whirling moment she fell into his eyes and was consumed by his power, by the sheer depth of the nerve-tingling, soul-shattering force that made War all that it was, is, and could be. Glory. Hatred. Honour. Spoils. Revenge. Wrath. All the emotions. The reasons. All the beginnings of what drove humankind to violence, be they noble or base.

The link was dropped and Kiran collapsed in her bindings, panting for breath. Her mind reeled, striving to deal with the widening of her consciousness far past its finite capabilities. When she could think straight all that remained was the knowledge that War existed for the continuation of War itself. Without warriors, without violence... he'd cease to exist.

"Yeah, but given mortal tendencies, I don't think I have anything to worry about," Ares said and grinned. "Too bad you're on the wrong side, Kiran." He patted her cheek. "You're a spunky fighter with a good head on your shoulders. Lots of potential. You sure ya don't wanna rethink your career path?"

"I still don't want to work for you. Sounds like an invitation to a short lifespan."

He stood up smoothly and grinned again. "'So long as you live, Neapolis will not fall," he quoted. "Doesn't sound like you're going to live a long time anyway."

"Yeah, and here I was all set for grandkids and grey hair," Kiran sighed, feigning a blasé expression towards her own demise. "I've heard that one a lot lately though. I don't suppose you have any new prophecies for me?"

"If you want prophesies, talk to the Fates," Ares replied. "But, I can appreciate your sense of humour under pressure so I won't let you shuffle off your mortal coil without a parting gift. Xena's on her way back, but even though she'll arrive in time, it won't matter."

"What?" Kiran croaked. "She's coming? When? Where is she now?" She peppered her him with her urgent questions, her pain momentarily forgotten in the elation of the unexpected news.

"The Warrior Princess will return, and return again, and what is dark will be darker still," Ares intoned, ignoring her outburst. And stopped. "Damn, I didn't mean to do that." He shook his head in mock consternation. With a hum of satisfaction, he wiggled his fingers in a good-bye and winked out of the tent in a flash of blue light leaving Kiran alone with the empty solace of his cryptic words to keep her company.

'The Warrior Princess will return, and return again...' What the Tartarus does that mean? A gnawing sensation of dread filled her gut, and Kiran began frantically wrestling with her chains knowing that, somehow, she had to get out of here.

 

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
CHAPTER SEVENTY-NINE

It was, perhaps, mid-morning, but it meant little except that the dreary grey sky might lighten a little more yet on this soggy and mist laden day. Chiaro had carried her far and fast in the night until the muddy road with its holes puddled with water and deceptive footing had proven too much for horse and rider. Deciding on a temporary halt, Gabrielle had pulled them off the road and beneath the dubious shelter of some pines where she huddled against the mare under the prickly, sweet smelling boughs, the Spear held tightly against her chest in both hands.

Sleep had been a fleeting fancy and the bard's nerves, jangled and tense, only allowed for a short and nightmare-coated nap. Her dreams, filled with fire, darkness, and the haunted eyes of her partner had brought her to a heart-pounding wakefulness with an urgency that drove her back into the saddle and down the road once more.

 

* * *

 

"Xena, when I get my hands on you..." Gabrielle muttered under her breath again for perhaps the dozenth time in the past hour making Chiaro's ears flicker back at the sound of her voice. "It's all your fault I'm up here on this damn horse no offence in this gods-forsaken weather, and you're gonna pay so big when I see you..." She adjusted her grip on her new staff, and contemplated how she'd handle the warrior upon their reunion. "A month of setting up camp? Firewood-gathering duty? I'd make you cook, but I don't think I should have to suffer, too. What do you think?" She directed this last question to the mare whose steady gait just off the road was bringing her closer and closer to her quarry. A whinny came back to her and Gabrielle, choosing to interpret it as a comment in her favour, nodded in satisfaction. "I thought so."

It was all a ruse, of course, and Gabrielle knew it. Talking, her source of comfort and release helped ease her growing inner turmoil if only to the barest degree. The questions reverberating inside beat in time to the mare's smooth rhythm, and the aching urgency would not give her peace. Gods, Xena, she breathed, why did you leave me? The real reason? What don't you want me to see? To know? Don't you know yet that there's nothing that would drive me away from you? She huffed a sigh knowing there would be no answers for some time yet and slowed the horse down to a slower pace as she had seen Xena do during their headlong rush to Kozani. The mare's flanks deflated with what the bard interpreted as a relieved sigh, and she patted her neck in silent apology before returning to her thoughts.

The lack of faith in her hurt. And she hurt for Xena that the warrior couldn't, or wouldn't, open up enough to accept the help she so desperately wanted to offer, and instead chose to leave without a word. No doubt she thought leaving me there was in my own best interest, whether it was what I wanted or not. Gabrielle grimaced and made a sound of frustration. "When I get my hands on you..." she said again.

Chiaro's sudden loud snort and hitching step startled the bard and she grasped the reins in a tighter grip and peered anxiously around them in the cold curtain of fog. "Easy there," she said, pulling them to a stop and trying to calm the horse and herself at the same time. Her heart pounding and her palms feeling damp in the confines of her gloves, Gabrielle's sea green eyes darted over the vague and half-formed landscape ghostly visible through the drizzle. But for the falling drops of rain, she could see nothing. Though...

"Do you see anything?" She remembered asking, and watched as the warrior shook her head.

"No," Xena had answered her in that deep and quiet rumble. "But that doesn't mean that something's not there."

The memory of the two of them, standing in the forest's shadows just before their first glimpse of Neapolis, came back to her abruptly. Xena was perpetually on her guard, always ready, always listening. It wasn't a bad example to follow.

Chiaro tossed her head again, growing even more agitated and the bard longed to dismount and lead the animal, but she realised she would be putting herself at a disadvantage if she couldn't get away quickly in the face of danger. Run when you can... Warrior Princess Rule number one, she reminded herself. Well, maybe number two. After "don't touch my horse". She shook herself from her internal reverie. C'mon, bard, pay attention here.

The leather palm of her glove squeaked when she gripped the Spear tighter and swallowed hard. The heels of her boots urged Chiaro into motion and the wet impact of her hooves in the mud and dark, bruised leaves was the only sound she could detect over her own rough breathing. An irregular lump took shape on the wet ground in front of her, and the mare's dancing steps to the side and away from it told Gabrielle all she needed to know to put her on her guard. Did it move? She wasn't sure, but she coaxed the mare closer, aware of the whitening around Chiaro's eyes. As they narrowed the distance, the object resolved itself into the uniformed body of a man, and Gabrielle's heart pounded wondering if Xena's army had been attacked on its journey to Neapolis.

But no, if it was one of Kozani's troops, surely they would have seen to the man? Unless Xena thought it was a waste of their time and energies. That kind of cold practicality was just like her. Especially these days, Gabrielle conceded to herself with a certain sadness. So who was this fellow?

The man lay face down in the dirt, one arm thrown over his head and the fingertips of the other buried in the mud as if reaching for something. The bard pulled her hood back and brushed the long, damp strands of hair away from her face as she leaned down and carefully used one blunted end of the Spear haft to nudge him. No protests. No movement. Gabrielle waited for a moment longer and then dismounted.

As nervous and spooked as her horse, Gabrielle reached out to grab a strap on the armour plating and quickly turned the man over. Only to immediately recoil in revulsion when she saw the gaping wounds in his torso that the dirt encrusted leather armour could not hide. Oh yuck, her stomach nearly rebelled at the sight. How did he get out here...? There were no other bodies, and no signs of struggle. Her eyes took in the scene again and realised that he must have lived through the attack long enough to drag himself as far as the roadway before he died. Trying to get away? She wondered. There was something... familiar... about this, but she couldn't tell yet what that was.

Even with the hard rainfall of the last several hours, the passage of the man's body had not been entirely washed away. Gabrielle's eyes, more practised now than they had been a year and a half ago, sought and found the traces that would lead her back to wherever this soldier had been attacked. Did she have the time? She glanced back to where Chiaro stood, the mare's nostrils flaring at the scent of the dead man, and then turned to look into the deeper part of the woods, her need to know growing by leaps and bounds.

The decision took all of a moment to make and she was picketing Chiaro before setting off into the forest, one careful step at a time. Gabrielle kept a constant watch of her surroundings while marking the trail and the remains of the dead man's passage.

She stepped through the trees and the slow-moving veil of fog into unimagined carnage. Bodies lay everywhere in various stages of dismemberment. The wet weather exposed their wounds with ghastly cleanliness, offering a bloodless display of impeccable detail that left Gabrielle feeling shocked and nauseated. Belongings and blankets lay in forlorn and abandoned disarray, and while she couldn't be certain, the bard had a feeling that whatever had happened here had taken these men by surprise. Looks of fear, of anger, of agony could be found in many of the faces that were still recognisable.

She turned a slow circle and counted some thirteen men. It was readily clear that they were dead and with nothing to be done about it, Gabrielle was about to turn to go when she spotted another man, farther off from the rest. A quick look, she told herself. A quick look and then I'm on the road again. I've seen enough.

This one lay with his hands over his heart and his eyes staring sightlessly into the grey and mournful sky. She gave a sudden gasp when she realised that she recognised him. He was the one who had blown her cover, the one who had faced off against Xena as the Warrior Princess fought him to give her time to get away. Xena... her thoughts racing in her mind as something clicked, and Gabrielle rushed back into the camp to wildly searched it and the trees surrounding it. There they were, plain to see now that she was looking for them. The signature markings of her best friend's chakram showed themselves in the gashed tree trunks, broken rock face, and split forehead of one of dead. Xena had definitely been here. Even as she felt a certain excitement at the thought, it was quickly tempered by the pure savageness of the attack. A hot, brutal fight which she could very nearly envision in her mind's eye from watching Xena in who knew how many encounters?

And something about the sword strokes, the bodies, and the state of the camp told the bard that this had all been managed single-handedly. That thought scared the Tartarus out of Gabrielle as she looked around again at the devastation. Oh Xena, what's happening to you? It was plain that no mercy had been granted here.

She leaned on the Spear in much the same manner as she did her own staff and contemplated the random pattern of leaves beneath her feet as she thought about the recent depth of change she had witnessed in Xena. She blinked as a scrap of brown amongst the other browns and greens caught her eye and the bard bent down, her nose scrunching in curiosity. Her fingers rubbed against it and she realised that she held a bit of leather in her hand. A piece of dark, ragged brown leather. Much like that worn by her partner. As she handled it she noticed her fingertips became smudged with a dark crimson and realised that the bit of material was moist with blood. She's been injured. Gabrielle felt a deep welling of panicked concern as she quickly stuffed the piece of leather in her belt and stood to go. And barely felt the presence behind her until it was almost too late.

Gabrielle whirled with the Spear lifted in both hands and caught the blade on the solid wood with a stinging clang. She shoved the blade away and quickly backed up to give herself some room to face him. And then she noticed two others behind him. You just HAD to be curious, didn't you? Gabrielle yelled at herself. Parry. Thrust. You just HAD to know what had happened, right? Grunt. Swing. Duck. "Ow!" A cut to her leg. Double hit and a leg sweep. One down. She backed up again and considered her options. Which, she realised, weren't many. Well, no one knows you're here. And that means that you have to get yourself out of this mess since there's no hero to pull you out of it.

The two soldiers came at her simultaneously, and Gabrielle sweated as she struggled to fend off their highly skilled attack. She had to get out of this. Xena needed her. The people of Neapolis were depending on the warrior and the knowledge the bard carried. I won't fail you. I won't! She resolved as she gritted her teeth and redoubled her efforts. A deflection and a sharp series of counter strokes. Shin. Elbow. Chin. Two down!

"You're not bad," her final adversary said as he made a cut for her head.

"Thanks," she muttered and barely blocked the hit. In return, she brought the lower end of her staff up in a quick, hard motion and slammed it into his kneecap with a satisfying smack. They both grunted at the impact, and backed off to re-evaluate the situation. "I don't suppose you could just let me go? Really. I have someplace else I have to be and I'm of no possible use to you boys at all."

"Oh, I could find a use," he laughed as he moved in again, punctuating his reply with a thrust to her midsection. Gabrielle barely turned in time to avoid it, and swung wildly at him but lost her sense of balance in the process. They both realised her mistake at the same time, and the man ducked beneath her blow and came up within her defences. His fist connected hard with Gabrielle's cheek and she stumbled back and tripped, falling on her back amidst the slain. The back of her hand slammed against a kettle and her weapon was jarred from her grasp.

He loomed above her and the bard reached out, her hand scrambling to find the Spear. His laughter filled her ears, and Gabrielle watched him raise the sword above her. Oh, gods... please... Xena, I'm sorry... Something flashed out of the corner of her eye, and Gabrielle turned in surprise to find the Spear of Mercy giving off a gold, pulsating light just beyond her fingertips. ...What...? There wasn't time for questions, and a lightning glance upward told her she was out of time. She lunged for the Spear and felt an enveloping heat through the palms of her gloves as she rolled out of the way of the sword that hummed past her and buried itself in the ground. The bard came to her knees and lashed out at her assailant's weapon watching as the blade shattered on impact and shards of metal rained across the clearing in a high ringing tone.

They both gaped almost comically at the broken sword in his hand. "Wow," Gabrielle breathed in awe and let out a disbelieving laugh as she climbed to her feet. "Now will you let me go? I swear we could have avoided all this trouble if you'd just listened to me in the first place. Some people never listen."

With a growl, he tossed his now useless weapon aside and came at her with his bare hands. His wild, enraged attack sent him careening towards her, and Gabrielle just barely set herself in time. "Look!" Thwack! "I'm really getting tired of this..." Smack! "...I have someplace I have to be..." Thud! "...and you're getting on my nerves!" Smack! Crunch!

The man let out an agonised screech and Gabrielle winced in response. And I thought only women could reach that register. "I'm sorry, but you started this, remember?" He didn't appear to be paying attention and the bard was fed up. A quick combination of hits concluded by a blow to the back of the head left her attacker prone, dazed and completely unable to continue the fight.

Gabrielle breathed hard as she looked around, searching for any further danger. Seeing none, she allowed herself a congratulatory grin. "Huh. Look what I did." Pleased with herself she began jogging back toward the road. Wait'll Xena hears about this one. I'll bet she'll be impressed. The grin on her face turned wry after a moment's consideration. Well... at least she will once she stops yelling at me. The gods know she'll be frothing that I'm not where she left me. The bard pulled Chiaro's reins loose from the overhanging branch and clambered back into the damp saddle. She clicked her tongue at her mount and felt Chiaro respond quickly to her heels as they continued at a brisk pace down the side of the road.

Relegating the reins to one hand she used the other to examine the Spear more closely. All signs of its unusual light were gone, and the dark, seasoned wood under her fingertips felt cool and normal. Weird, Gabrielle decided. But she wasn't about to look a gift horse in the mouth. Not when there was still so much farther to go.

Thus reminded of the time she had lost, Gabrielle gave Chiaro her head, and the two picked up speed, cantering as quickly as they dared until they were lost in the tendrils of swirling mist.

 

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
CHAPTER EIGHTY

The manacles would not yield and Kiran finally gave up to hang in ignominious and frustrated defeat. The captain was uncertain of how much time had passed, but she had given close attention to the sounds of shouting and horses outside the tent. The time remaining before for the final attack was dwindling and Kiran knew that, without a miracle, Neapolis would likely fall before the end of the day. Athena, help them. Keep them safe. Protect them, she begged fervently. It was unlikely that such would happen, but maybe some would be spared Stephicles' brutal rampage.

A voice outside alerted her and Kiran turned her eyes towards the tent's fluttering doorway. Through her good eye she could see a cloaked figure slip into the tent and approach her. With a small grunt, she wrestled herself to her feet and tried to prepare herself for whatever abuse might be coming next. "Who's there?" she demanded to know, trying to keep her voice firm and steady.

"He got you good, didn't he?"

Mira. Damn you...leave me be. "What are you doing back here?" Kiran spat as the other woman moved into her line of sight. "Looking to take a turn?"

"Shut up," Mira replied with a defensive air and reached out to unlock the chain holding the manacle around her left wrist. "I only did what I had to do, and even then I didn't do all of it."

"Should I be happy about that?" she retorted and ran her tongue against her split lip. "Though, if it's possible, Ares seems even less thrilled with you right now than I am."

An expression of dull anger marred the other woman's features at the taunt, and she paused for a moment to shoot her prisoner a severe look. "Be. Quiet."

"Or else what? You'll hit me again?" The captain goaded her and rattled her chains. "You murdering bitch! You're lucky that I'm locked up right now or I'd kill you with my bare hands!"

The muscles of Mira's jaw worked, and Kiran was mystified by the expression of sad defeat on the girl's face. "You have no idea just how tempted I am to let you," Mira responded quietly.

Taken aback, Kiran could only stare as Mira dashed a hand across her eyes. "What are you saying?" The fingers that tried to unlock the chains holding her upright shook, and Kiran could feel the tiny tremors along the length of the quietly clinking chain.

"Do you think I want to serve Ares?" The girl gritted her teeth and redoubled her efforts and finally the lock tumbler clicked open.

Kiran collapsed to the tent floor, groaning as the strain on her shoulders was finally released. She lay on the floor in blessed stillness, and winced at the sharp, tingling ache that radiated from her shoulders and arms as blood began to flow again. "It sure looked like it when you cut Agnes' throat last night." A growl, buoyed on the rising level of her pain, underscored her words.

"You have no idea what it is to be compelled. No idea how it feels to be trapped between servitude and death," Mira said with a sad intensity that made her appear far older than her years. "There are so few choices."

"Yeah? I think I would have rather died than betrayed people who had cared for me."

Mira sank to her haunches, her face pale and still though her eyes were over-bright with moisture. "You're so certain of your convictions and ideals, Kiran. The people I thought cared for me abandoned me. They left me on Ares' doorstep and cursed me for the visions that always seemed to herald death and violence. He took me in. Gave me a home. Offered a purpose other than dying of starvation or worse on the streets. And by the time he came to reclaim my debt, to claim me, I owed him so much." Mira clenched her fist and held it against her heart, entreating Kiran to hear her words, to understand her. "I had no other choice."

Kiran's anger was blunted, but not erased. "There are always choices."

"My world isn't as black and white as yours seems to be," Mira retorted.

"Should I feel sorry for you now?" The captain shot back. "For all I know you're just acting again. When I think of your smiles and jokes back in Neapolis it makes me sick. You must have loved how you had everyone in your pocket!"

"I wasn't acting."

She spoke so calmly, so quietly, that Kiran was hard pressed to disbelieve her. Those dark brown eyes met hers and grew deep with such grief that she almost couldn't stand to share such a weighted gaze. If it were true, then it meant that the girl she had seen in Neapolis had been the real her, not this dark and miserable shadow that kneeled before her now. Kiran didn't want to feel for her plight, didn't want to know the horrors those eyes had seen. She had enough to be worried about without adding more. But, she couldn't help but see the situation in a new, if reluctant light.

Brown eyes met grey and finally Mira sighed, unsheathed her short sword, and took hold of Kiran's bindings. "C'mon. Before they come back in here wondering what I've done with you."

* * *

They ducked out of the tent and into a teeming maelstrom of activity as the camp prepared for the final assault on the town. Kiran winced as the enveloping sound and motion made her head pound harder, the mix of horses, men, and metal all combined into an almost intelligible wall of noise. Mira held the sword at her back, but Kiran knew it was only a reminder and a guide; she wasn't going anywhere at the moment. Not when she was smack in the middle of an army. And it's not like I can run anyway, she thought with pained frustration as she limped onwards slightly bent at the waist. She was certain her midriff must be mottled with deep and colourful bruises. I'd be lucky to crawl ten feet before they spitted me.

With her keeper prodding her along, the two women made their way through the throng to a hillock that offered a clearer view of the town's gates. They joined the others standing in the ankle high winter-faded grass and Kiran leaned her head back to catch a few drops of rain in her parched mouth before turning her gaze towards the group of men gathering close below. Between the animatedly gesturing Stephicles and the still and intimidating form of Ares, she could see the ropes and hooks that were being passed around. Here and there, the men carried chains and shields as well.

Lifting her gaze, Kiran could see the figures of her people moving along the walls, their bobbing heads moving quickly, but she hoped not frantically, in making their own preparations. Was Dalis there? Did he still live? Or had he become another casualty of this unending madness?

Anxious dread knotted her stomach. She knew enough to know that it was almost over. The captain looked over her shoulder towards the mist-clouded woods and hoped, wished, for some sign of the Warrior Princess. Ares had said Xena would be back, and for some reason he didn't strike her as the type who would bother to lie. But the woods remained still and her hopes faded as she heard Stephicles turned and spoke to his commander.

"Give the signal," he said with a relaxed smile.

Nader saluted, left his side and joined the milling group of horsemen. The lead rider leaned down to speak with the man, nodded once, and then gave a shouted command to his men. They gathered in rough lines flanked to either side by archers armed with flaming pitch. The stink of it, heavy in the moist air, filled her nose and she knew that she would learn to hate it long before the day was over.

Nader waved his arm twice in the air and snapped it forward and Kiran's stomach bottomed out, realising that the beginning of Neapolis' end was underway. At the sign, the mounted troops surged forward and the thundering rumble of their stride grew and ripped the turf below their churning hooves. The slap of bowstrings stung the air and suddenly dozens upon dozens of flaming arrows whisked across the overcast sky, a deadly herald of the coming army. The lethal hail fell on the Neapolitan defences and she shivered when the screaming began. Shouts and cries carried thinly to her over the roar of the horsemen and Kiran instinctively took a step forward, only to be halted in her progress by Mira's hand on her shoulder. The captain gritted her teeth and bore it, but hated herself for not shaking off her captor's grip and at least attempting to run, impossibly foolish as it might be. The ridiculous prophecy whispered through her mind again, and she clenched her fists and desperately tried to believe that her standing here, living as they died, perhaps aided them somehow.

Another flight of arrows followed the first, and the archers broke ranks to close the distance to the walls and lend support to the mounted troops who were slowing their approach. The creak of rope pulled her eyes back towards Stephicles' camp in time to see his remaining catapult launch a stone aloft. From her vantage it seemed to hang in the air for the longest time, its tumbling mass small and light against the clouds. The rock shattered as it impacted the wall near the gates, the resounding boom echoing back across the battlefield to her as shards flew in all directions, killing one person and injuring more.

They rallied though, and Kiran wondered how long their pride would let them last as they poured hot oil over the side and down onto the men beneath the gate. Shields were thrown up in response and she grinned savagely when someone tossed a torch down to set it alight. Perhaps a half-dozen of Stephicles' men thrashed and ran, the fiery oil seeping through armour and cloth setting flesh afire. More arrows followed, and the braver of his troops pressed forward and wedged their hooks in the sturdy metal plates that had, until now, kept the Neapolitans safe.

"Sir, we've lost at least a dozen so far," Nader reported as he jogged back to his general's side.

"Mount another dozen and a half and send them in," Stephicles ordered calmly. "We'll crush them with sheer numbers."

Kiran listened to this and caught Ares' nod out of the corner of her eye. If she hadn't already been looking she would have missed the glance he gave over his shoulder, his dark eyes thoughtfully searching the same stretch of woods she had been examining earlier. Is he expecting her already? She, too, looked back, barely daring to hope that the greenery might suddenly part and reveal the ferocious Warrior Princess galloping down the hillside towards them. The mist draped woods stood silent as before. Disappointed, Kiran turned back, her eyes colliding with Ares' and she was unable to interpret the look he gave her before returning to watch the roiling movement centred on the gate.

The horsemen whipped their mounts pulling the chains and ropes taut. Another wave of arrows arched toward the top of the wall and over it to push the defenders back. More of Stephicles' men came forward, many hands reaching for ropes to pull, and pull, and pull again. The wooden gates protested and the roar of the men grew louder.

Stephicles stepped forward, a hand on the pommel of his sword, excited tension visible in his focused attention. "Do it," Kiran heard him mutter. "Do it!"

A deep creaking sound portended her worst fear. There was movement in the crowd of men at the base of the gate and suddenly the portal, pushed to its limit, gave way with a snapping of wood. The top bowed outwards and was pulled down into the mass below. "No," Kiran moaned and felt the hot sting of tears burning her eyes. "Oh goddess, no..."

A cheer went up even as the defenders fought frantically from above, hurling spears and chunks of rock, anything that could be brought to hand. Fighting broke out as Stephicles' men moved into the bailey and from there Kiran knew that the worst had only begun. "No." Her desperate anger grew in her chest, large and burning, and she shook off Mira's hand, took two quick steps forward and jumped on Stephicles' back. With a flip of her wrists she brought the chain hanging between her manacles around his neck and yanked back with all her remaining strength. The man beneath her thrashed, but Kiran hung on, the chain digging into her palms as she wordlessly screamed her wrath.

She never saw the blow that took her down. The hard ground came up too soon and she tried to lift herself just as another blow to the back put her face first into the grass. "Stay down," Mira ordered her.

Her vision, prickled with spots of light, alternately blurred and focused, and she turned her head and watched Stephicles struggle to his feet, both hands on his throat as he coughed. A livid weal stood out starkly on his skin as he turned and kicked her hard in the ribs. Kiran grunted and curled up in a ball, the fire of her defiance extinguished.

"You're dead," Stephicles croaked. He spun and pointed a finger at Mira. "Kill her and this time I mean it!" Rubbing his throat he stalked over to his horse, mounted, and waited for Ares to join him.

The God of War strolled over to her side and hunkered down, clicking his tongue at her mockingly. "Wasn't a bad attempt, but you don't get points for losing," he told her. "Too bad you didn't take my offer." He rose to his feet smoothly and would have walked away if not for Kiran's sudden grip on his boot.

"Wait!" She said.

Ares raised an eyebrow at her temerity.

"You said..." She pulled in a pained breath. "You said she'd be here."

"I said she'd arrive in time. I didn't say what she'd arrive in time for." Ares threw back his dark head and laughed.

"Ares!" Stephicles gestured towards the town where the fighting had grown in earnest and spread to the upper walls.

"Ah..." He took in the sight of Neapolis' ravishment with relish. "I love my job." The God turned to face Mira, whose eyes lowered to watch Kiran struggle to gain her knees. "Do it right this time. When this is over, you and I are going to have a little talk." And with that, Ares mounted his horse and touched his heels to the animal's sides, leading the gallop towards the gate.

The rest of the army rode to join their General, leaving the two women behind on the hillock to watch as the fires broke out, their smoke rising darkly in the wet wind to spread a shadowy smear of grey against the clouds.

Neapolis was lost.

 

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
CHAPTER EIGHTY-ONE

The door banged open and a blood-splattered, smoke-blackened man in armour burst into the room causing its occupants to cry out in surprise and fear. "The gate is down!" Dalis yelled to Laera. Pandemonium erupted and she had to shout several times to quiet them. "They're in the courtyard," he hurried on. "You have to hide, councillor, they'll be here soon!" The man looked over his shoulder as several of his troops followed him in. "Time to go."

"Bettina," Laera snapped her fingers to get the younger woman's attention. "As we planned. Get everyone to the temple's basement. It's stone and defensible." The crowd that filled the council chamber's hall was not the whole of them, but they were all that could be gathered from the town to be brought to the safety that the hall had offered. "Calmly, everyone. To the temple. Follow Bettina and Dimitra."

Laera watched as the younger children were lifted onto the backs of the older children, or carried in the arms of their mothers and elders. Under the guidance of the militia, they filed quickly and noisily from the hall, their frightened and worried voices bouncing hollowly in the large room. She reached out and grabbed Dalis' arm to prevent him leaving as well. "How bad is it?"

Round and bloodshot eyes stared at her from a blanched and dirty face. "We can't hold them," he whispered hoarsely. "We're fighting them in the streets and we have the gods to thank for the rain otherwise the fires would have torched everything. They're looting us, councillor, looting and killing. Mostly the troops, small consolation that might be. But he's in the courtyard." Dalis didn't bother saying his name, they both knew who he meant. "Before we pulled back I heard him laughing and speaking of hanging the citizens from the walls as a warning to those who might think to defy him. Even women and children."

"Gods have mercy," Laera breathed with horror as she looked away towards 'Demeter's Winter' with its hard and barren landscape. The enormity of the threat facing them nearly turned her vitals to water. "Has there been any sign..."

Mutely, he shook his head. Until the very last moment before they were forced to retreat from the walls, he and the militia had scanned the horizon awaiting the warrior's promised return with desperate hope. To no avail. And now...

Laera's wan face turned to the tapestry again and wondered if she would live to see the end of this long winter that had been filled to overflowing with death. And hope in very short supply. All the prophecies she had heard had come to naught. With the gate broken she could only guess that Kiran lay somewhere, alone and dead. And with Stephicles' coming, hope was a fleeting notion with no more substance than a dream. Ashes and ruin. Her staunch faith and stubborn will had bought them time, but also the warlord's embittered ire with it, and her town would pay the price for her folly.

With faltering steps, Laura turned and stood beneath the image of the goddess hanging at the head of the hall and stared upwards beseechingly. "Athena, do not abandon your people," she whispered in broken anguish. "Do not let them suffer for my pride." Could she have spared them this if she had only surrendered earlier? The old woman reached out a withered hand and grasped the bottom of the tapestry. With a sob, she lowered her forehead to rest it against the gilded fabric.

Dalis stepped to her side, his awkwardness accentuated by the tilt of his head and the way his hand hovered just on the verge of touching her back. "Please," he whispered. "Please. Laera..." he swallowed uncomfortably. "She will do her part. We must still do ours. Come away now. Please..."

At his urging she released the tapestry and allowed him to escort her from the dark and empty hall. Laera paused at the door to look back. She wondered sometime later if it was a trick of the light that made it seem so, or perhaps it had been only the overwrought imagination of an old woman, but she could have sworn that the eyes of the Goddess smiled down upon her.

 

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
CHAPTER EIGHTY-TWO

"We're getting close." Taelere listened as he and Xena surveyed the area.

"I want everyone off the road and into the woods on this side." She pointed over to his right. "Prepare the infantry and cavalry. Once we get to the area around the town I'll want them ready to split up to get into position. And get me a scouting detail. I want to ride ahead to see what we can expect."

They had ridden almost non-stop since leaving Kozani and even Taelere, accustomed to rigourous campaigns, felt the effects of hours spent in the saddle despite the infrequent breaks she grudgingly gave them. After her return from the woods, splattered in blood and stone-faced, their conversations had been terse and awkward though he could appreciate, in retrospect, her reasons for wanting to keep his troops out of any additional fighting. But however many of them there were, do you really think that a handful would have been a match for nearly two-hundred fighters? There was no guessing what thoughts were moving behind those ice blue eyes. "I'll see to it immediately," he replied quietly and turned his horse back in search of his section leaders.

* * *

Xena adjusted a bracer and watched Taelere leave. Every instinct she had told her to leave them now, ride on. In spite all outward appearances to the contrary, her body fairly hummed with her impatient tension. For all her single-minded focus, however, she was still hyper-aware of her surroundings. And for the past couple of hours Xena had fought the urge to drop back and investigate whatever was making her senses itch. Something was back there, but this close to Neapolis she couldn't afford to waste the time. For all his promises, the warrior wasn't inclined to trust Ares any farther than she could kick him.

The sound of approaching horses captured her attention and she watched as a half dozen of Taelere's soldiers came to a halt around her. They were tired, she could see, and they looked at her with a satisfying mix of wariness and respect. That she still sat straight and tall in the saddle was no little reason either Xena intuited as she caught one man shifting in his saddle with a wince and a veiled expression of envy.

"Try to keep up," was all she said before urging Argo into the trees.

* * *

They rode for perhaps another hour until Xena ordered them to pull to a stop. With hands signals they had learned to recognise on their trip here, she set three as a close perimeter watch while the other three trailed her crouched and silently moving form deeper into the woods. They watched her closely, paused when she paused, and looked at each other in confusion when she lifted her head and opened her mouth, giving every appearance of tasting the air. With an abrupt wave of her hand they all dropped to their bellies and crawled forward after her to a rise where the tree line stopped and gave a wide view of the ground below them.

They heard her breath catch and what sounded like a curse. Concerned, they edged closer, moving up beside her to see the sweep of the valley that became visible through the break in the trees. They quickly saw the source of her anger...

Neapolis was burning

Wide-eyed and stunned, they took in the view of the nearly empty city of tents set back from the town and the ant-sized figures that swarmed around the front of the gaping hole that was once the gate. Smoke from numerous fires, dark and heavy, lifted into the sky and they understood now what the Warrior Princess had detected.

She rolled over, her eyes flitting sightlessly over the foliage, obviously thinking. "You rabid, untrustworthy, useless piece of centaur dung," she gritted out and slapped the ground with a gloved palm. "Son of a bacchae!"

"Ma'am?" One of them tentatively ventured. Hot blue eyes snapped over and the soldier wondered suddenly if she might kill him for speaking out of turn.

"You," she crooked her finger at him. "C'mere."

"M-me?"

She grabbed his shoulder and pointed down towards Neapolis. "See that?" She waited for him to nod. "We're going to fix that."

"But... how?"

"Forget what you were told on the road and listen up..."

* * *

She watched the three of them hurry back to their horses and take the perimeter troops with them as they passed, counting on them to deliver her message to Taelere as quickly as possible. The warrior had had them repeat her instructions back to her three times to make sure they understood completely before allowing them to go.

Edging forward again from where she still lay on the wet, muddy ground, Xena let her eyes sweep over the battlefield and mentally changed her tactics from moment to moment as she examined the situation in light of her new plans. It won't be easy, but then it never is, is it?

She closed her eyes and lowered her head to rest on her arm. Everything ached. And she couldn't remember the last time she had been this tired. Would it be a relief when this was over? Would death be a release? Or would Tartarus only heighten this pervasive sense of weary guilt that she felt in herself? Turning her head, she suffered a momentary sense of déjà vu as she realised that she had lain almost in this very spot only a handful of days ago. Except then, when she had looked over, a pair of earnest and excited green eyes had looked back at her.

No more. Her breath caught with the ache of her impending loss and she felt a painful knot of longing. But try as she might to push it away, she was unable, or perhaps it was more that she was unwilling to dismiss the bard entirely from her thoughts. Gabrielle...be strong. I need you to be strong. But... I wish I could see you again. At least once more.

It was not to be however. Instead, she took a deep breath, pushed herself to her feet and headed towards a restlessly impatient Argo who was awaiting her return. As she checked the tack over and tightened the girth strap one of the soldier's questions came to mind again...

But... where will you be?

Xena remounted the spirited animal and slowly drew her sword. The damp saddle leather creaked as she settled herself and she let the hilt of the weapon fall gently to rest on her thigh. Her eyes turned cold and radiated menace as she inspected its sharply honed edge. "Where will I be? Keeping a promise," she growled into the empty clearing and kicked the horse into motion. "Hyah!" She broke from the edge of the woods, her dark hair flying in the wind and rain, and her eyes blazing as she raced to the walls. They would pay for this. And so would she. Finally.

 

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
CHAPTER EIGHTY-THREE

"Get in there."

The shove from behind sent Kiran reeling to her hands and knees in the vacant tent, eliciting a small grunt of pain. Warily, she looked back over her shoulder to where Mira's form was silhouetted against the tent flap's opening and wondered if this was going to be it.

Tiredly, Kiran managed to get herself as far up as her knees, wondering all the while if it would be worth it to put up a fight. Part of her was so dreadfully weary and hurt, so much so that she was almost willing to lie down and have it all be over with. But something else inside was offended by the notion of letting them have an easy win over her. "So what now?" She asked and looked around. "Are you going to kill me finally?" She didn't even try to smooth the rough tone that coloured her words.

Mira didn't answer right away, instead moving further into the room and towards a table strewn with parchment. It was only then that Kiran realised that she had been brought back to the warlord's own quarters.

"You'd better hurry it up," Kiran continued to snipe. "Or else you'll miss getting into town in time to watch your master hang everybody from the walls. I'm sure you'd just love to kick a few over yourself, wouldn't you?" She braced herself for the blow and felt Mira's shove her with enough force to knock her on her side. Wheezing, Kiran rolled on her back and looked up at the expression of anger that couldn't quite erase the look of shame.

"What's the matter? Don't want to be the one responsible for killing Neapolis' hope?"

"Stop it!" Mira shouted. "Why won't you stop?"

"Because it's true and you just won't face it!" Kiran shouted back, her temper flaring. Could she be convinced? "Laera cared about you. Even loved you. And now, I'll bet Stephicles is going to make her suffer, the bastard. He seems like just the type to do it too. You kill me, he kills her, Neapolis falls and hundreds of people will suffer and die."

"If I don't, he'll kill me."

"We all die. Sometimes you get to choose how. You said you didn't want to serve Ares anyway. Let me go. Maybe I can still do some good."

"I can't..." Mira said through gritted teeth. "You have no idea what he'd do to me."

"Then I guess we all have our priorities," Kiran sneered with contempt as she levered herself up. "G'wan. Get it over with." She leaned her head back to expose her throat. "The slaughter's already started, so it's not like I'll be the first."

The former acolyte raised her short sword slowly up to shoulder level, the blade gleaming dully with the light thrown from the smoking braziers at the other side of the room. Her face contorted itself into an open-mouthed expression of anguished determination and her teeth snapped shut and clenched tight as a low rumbling growl built into a shout.

Maybe she had misjudged her. Maybe she couldn't be reached. Ares' hold on her was so insidiously deep. Oh gods, oh gods, I don't want to die, oh please...The words rushed through her mind as Kiran's body tensed for the blow. She pressed her eyes shut, not wanting to see the sword's final flash before it hit her. Will it hurt much?

Mira's cry nearly deafened her and the fingers that gripped the rug whitened to the knuckles. She felt the cold hum of the blade along her skin, and the captain let out a grunt of sound that was followed immediately by the clang of the blade striking the tent pole. Kiran's eyes opened wide and her hands slapped against her throat, their gazes meeting.

The brown haired girl sobbed for breath as she watched the realisation grow in Kiran's eyes. In that one sweep of her weapon everything had changed. Everything.

"You..." Kiran croaked, her eyes wide.

"I can't," Mira whimpered and fell to her knees. "I can't." The sword fell from her hands and she covered her face and sobbed.

"Thank you, gods." Her prisoner collapsed back on the rug and let her chained hands fall limply on her chest in profound relief. Kiran stared up at the tent's ceiling and breathed deeply. The wisp of air across her skin had been so fine she had feared that she hadn't even felt the blade cut her until she had reached up and felt for herself that she was still whole and in relatively one piece. And it felt so unbelievably good.

It would be a moment, she decided, that would remain etched in her memory for the rest of her life. The feel of the cold air on her skin, the sound of the raindrops against the tarpaulin and Mira's soft crying, the sparklingly raw feel of her aches and pains that told her she was alive. Her eyes slowly roamed the interior of the tent and noted for the first time the vibrancy of its coloured fabric. She wanted to laugh. Or cry. Later, she told herself as she regained her wits. If I live. There was still so much more to do.

Lifted on her sudden euphoria at sidestepping death, Kiran managed to roll to her knees and with the aid of a nearby chair, climbed unsteadily to her feet. "Ungh," she groaned. "Ok..." Now she just had to figure out her next step. The table covered in papers caught her eye and she stumbled over to it and examined the numerous maps showing Neapolis and its surrounding area. "Useless." She shoved them off the table and let them flutter to the floor in a soft crinkling rain. "I already know where they're going." A thought occur to her and Kiran turned to look in the corner of the room and was relieved to see that her belongings still lay there.

The boots were wet, but she happily wiggled her toes in the leather and felt vaguely more human by the passing moment. The chains on her wrists frustrated her efforts to don her armour and she turned to the still weeping woman and thrust her manacles under her nose. "Unchain me," Kiran demanded.

When Mira didn't respond, Kiran reached out and buried her fists in the other's armour and shook her as hard as she was able. "Gods damn you! Get me out of these!" The violence of her movements snapped Mira back to awareness and she dug at her waist belt with trembling fingers. It slipped from her grasp, but Kiran quickly scooped it up and set about undoing the locks binding her wrists. The click they made was satisfying and Kiran dumped the chains on the floor and quickly returned to her pile of belongings.

She struggled into her armour, and shrugged the leather plating into place, the effort leaving her feeling sweaty and out of breath. The padding was barely enough to cushion its weight against her injuries, but she tried her best not to feel it as she tucked her gloves in her belt and moved the empty scabbard around to her left side. Gods only knew where her sword had gone. But she would definitely need another...

Kiran looked over her shoulder and notice Mira's discarded weapon lying abandoned on the floor. Just the thing.

She reached for the hilt and suddenly found her wrist caught in a vise-like grip. Jerking against it she lifted her eyes to find Mira's pale face, now serious and calm, staring back at her.

"You take that with you and they'll kill you for bait before you even get back into the town," Mira said, her voice husky from crying.

"And what am I supposed to do? Wait here for your lord and master to come back and skin me alive?" Kiran struggled, her breath coming hard and fast. The grip on her wrist was too strong. "Let me go!"

"You'll never live to see the temple if you go in there like you are. You're wounded and weak."

"Another one of your prophecies?" Kiran retorted. "Maybe you have a better idea?" She added and reached for the weapon with her other hand. She growled in frustration as that wrist was grabbed as well.

"Not a prophecy, but it may as well be one! You'll never make it on your own," Mira stated with certainty. She paused as if weighing her words. "But, you might if you take me."

"Take you..." the captain breathed unable to believe her ears.

"Take me with you."

Was it a trap? Did it matter? She needed to get into the town as quickly as possible, and if Mira could give her a sure way in... "Why? Why would you do this?"

Mira swiped a hand across her face removing the last signs of moisture from her eyes. Though red-rimmed, her gaze was strong and determined. "Laera never deserved this. And neither did you. I can't lie to myself anymore and say that it doesn't matter."

It could work. It could, but for the girl's tendency to switch sides. "How do I know I can trust you?"

"You don't, but you can. I'll even swear it to Athena if you want me to."

Kiran looked in her eyes, and felt the time slipping by her as she tried to figure out what to do.

"I won't betray you again," Mira whispered seeming to read her mind.

"That's right," Kiran agreed grimly. "Because by this point, you've turned on everyone you've ever sided with and you've only got one shot at this."

Mira grabbed the discarded manacles and her sword and then stood smoothly. With a last look around, she reached down a hand to Kiran. "We'd better going before we're too late."

"Gods helps us if we are." She grunted as she was pulled to her feet, and she leaned heavily on Mira's sturdy frame. With her help, they moved to the flap of the tent and peered out onto the battlefield. A quick glance was shared between them, one of sorrow and apology, before they ducked out of the tent.

A sound from behind them made Kiran turn and her jaw dropped when, from out of the mists and rain, came the growing sound of thundering hooves punctuated by a distinctive war cry. It was only a moment before horse and rider streaked past them, but Kiran hardly needed more to identify the rider to herself. Her look of shocked surprise transformed into a triumphant smile, and a new light came into her eyes. "Death comes for your master, Mira," she said, her aches considerably less noticeable. "And hope isn't far behind."

With renewed purpose and energy, she set off again with Mira's help, and they headed for the temple and the heart of the siege.

 

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
CHAPTER EIGHTY-FOUR

Stephicles fought with his men, the protective ring around him often collapsing inwards under the desperate and frantic efforts of the Neapolis militia to push through and kill him. Nader rode at his side, fiercely beating them back as they progressed step by step down the cobblestone road towards the centre of town where the temple and their prize awaited them. Ares accompanied them as well, the God of War taking considerable pleasure in the brutal fighting waged in his presence. In the brief moments that allowed Stephicles to rest his arm, he could hear Ares shouting commentary to all and sundry, his enjoyment evident in his tone and the wide, toothy smile that graced his face. Much to his annoyance, the God had yet to even lift a hand to help them however.

"Ooo! That hadda smart!" Ares chortled as he watched one of Stephicles own troops take a sword to the gut. He reached out a hand to snag a spear in mid-flight and twirled it in one hand as he looked around. "Better keep moving," Ares suddenly shouted towards the warlord. "This little cul-de-sac could turn into a bloodbath in a second if reinforcements arrive."

No centaur dung, Stephicles thought angrily as he parried another sword thrust. The god deigned to offer advice and encouragement at the oddest times, sometimes when the answer was readily obvious. He hoped that the vacated position of Ares' Chosen and what it represented was worth putting up with the God's sense of humour and unusual quirks. "Forward!" He ordered his men, and he felt them rally and push forward. In turn, he watched the defenders' resolve wavering as more of his men came through the gate behind him. Not as many as he had originally brought with him, and many of those numbers illusory, given that he was certain the brigands couldn't be trusted not to knife his own troops in the back. But it would be enough.

He laughed as his sword took down another of their militia, and he spurred his horse cruelly causing it to leap over a broken wagon, forcing his own men to fight all the harder to keep up with him.

By the gods, it would be enough.

 

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CHAPTER EIGHTY-FIVE

Gabrielle knew she was getting close. The fresh markings on the forest floor at her last rest stop, barely touched by the rain, had told her so. With that proof at hand, it was all she could do to sit still, let Chiaro rest, and swallow some of the travel bread and dried fruit Agraulos had included in her supplies before jumping back in the saddle. Something Xena had told her once about the difficulties in mobilising large groups convinced Gabrielle that she must be moving along at a much faster rate than she thought in spite of how hard Xena was likely to be pushing them.

Her palms were sweaty in the confines of her dark, leather gloves, and her stomach fluttered restlessly, almost making her regret having eaten anything at all. Her thoughts moved relentlessly in the same circles, consumed by her worry for Xena's safety and that of the Neapolitans. Gabrielle missed her, too. She even missed that dour glare and the brooding silences. Missed the sense of strength and presence that the warrior exuded that both calmed her and made her feel safe.

It galled her that she was unable to remember anything beyond being carried from the council chamber in Xena's arms. Especially since, according to Agraulos, her friend had stayed with her for a time before finally leaving to attend to her preparations. Still, it was a good memory to have though; that cherished sensation of tender concern as the warrior had held her close even as the council, awash with tension, threatened to imprison Xena and undo all their efforts to stop Stephicles. Shyly, Gabrielle realised that she missed Xena's touch, and she silently and fervently prayed that that moment back in Kozani wouldn't be the last time she felt that kind of protective peace. And it won't. Not if I have anything to say about it.

The bard was so distracted by her thoughts that the far off noise barely registered through her awareness. Putting a temporary hold on her introspection, Gabrielle narrowed her eyes and squinted into the fog-draped foliage. Was it her imagination, or simply wishful thinking? Was it possible? She could have sworn that she heard an almost rumbling thrum in the air. A thick stand of trees, ghostly in the mist, obstructed her view, but her heart began to pound in response to the hopeful thought.

She chose a path that veered to one side of the copse; and she leaned over Chiaro's mane, moving with the horse's gait as Xena had taught her. And suddenly it was her imagination no more. A few hundred yards ahead of her the fog parted to reveal the vague outline of columns of horsemen riding through the woods, their passing echoing eerily in the mist. Her heart filled to bursting with excitement and Chiaro seemed to feel the same, picking up her hooves and nearly flying along between the trees.

It was all Gabrielle could do not to shout her excitement as she gripped the Spear in one hand and clung to the saddle horn with the other as they bore down on the group trotting quickly through the woods. Elated beyond words, Gabrielle's face lit up like a candle and she overtook the rear guard just as they turned to investigate the sound behind them. Just you wait, Xena... Her excitement was so great so could barely breathe. Green eyes slid right and left, searching for the leather-clad warrior.

"Excuse me!" She called as she passed them by on the left side, lifting herself in the stirrups to try to see the front. "Pardon me, I need to get through," the bard said ducking and evading the few hands that reached out to stop her as she steered through their lines and continued on down the right side. "Oops!" Distracted, Gabrielle felt the Spear knock into someone and heard them grunt in response. "Sorry!" She called back and tried to ignore the sound of swords being drawn behind her as she urged Chiaro into a light canter instead.

Voices shouted behind her as she raced towards the front of the column. The commotion had drawn their attention, and Gabrielle disregarded the looks of confusion and surprise thrown her way as she looked for the familiar form of her partner. "Xena!" C'mon, where are you?

"Halt where you are!" A deep voice ordered. An older man pointed his sword at her as she approached, and he turned in his saddle to follow her progress. "Go no further. There's danger ahead."

"I know, thanks," Gabrielle called out as she came along side of him, still looking around. "That's where I'm headed."

He looked at her as though she were mad. "Excuse me?"

She looked back at him and then swivelled her head around. "This is the Kozani army, isn't it?" Gabrielle asked him, not knowing exactly what she would do if the answer was negative.

The man's brows drew together. "Yes," he answered slowly, still trying, very obviously, to figure her out.

"Where's Xena?"

His brow jumped and then drew together again. "How do you know her?" He demanded suspiciously.

Gabrielle was getting impatient. "She's my friend. Do you know where she is?" A sense of foreboding was settling in her stomach, and Gabrielle almost didn't need to hear his answer, her eyes were already shifting down the path.

"She's gone on ahead to the town," he answered, disapproval heavy in his tone, whether at her or at Xena, the bard couldn't tell.

"Damn it!" Gabrielle swore heatedly, and blinked back her sudden tears at the feeling of disappointment and upset that knotted her stomach. Now what do I do? Fragmented thoughts wouldn't come together, and she gritted her teeth as panic started to set in.

"Friend or no friend," he broke into her thoughts, "you must go back. It isn't safe for you here."

"She needs me," Gabrielle answered in a near whisper and felt a corresponding sense of rightness echo through her chest. She took a deep breath. "Look, I'm the ambassador for Neapolis. My name is Gabrielle, and I have to get a message to Xena. There's a spy in Neapolis who I'm sure is able to contact Stephicles, and they know your plans."

"Ah," he breathed. "That explains it then."

"What?" Gabrielle asked, barely breathing. "That explains what?"

"They've already stormed the town and pulled down the gate. Stephicles has breached the walls."

"Oh, gods... no," she whispered. The Spear in her hands was suddenly heavy. "Are we too late?"

"Not if Xena has anything to say about it," he replied with a reluctant smile as they ducked beneath an overhanging branch. "She's already sent back a change of orders. She means to take back the town."

"But she's going in there alone?"

He shook his head in annoyed disgust. "It's not like she gave me a choice, otherwise I would have demanded that she wait for an escort."

"She is rather single minded," Gabrielle conceded. "Besides, an escort would really cramp her style."

He snorted. "So I noticed."

The pull seemed stronger, the need to go almost urgent. "If you're smart, you'll follow her instructions," she told him, but her eyes were already on the way ahead. "Good luck." She gave Chiaro her head and the two broke into a run, leaving the man to gape at her with his hand extended uselessly out behind her.

"Wait...I have something for you!" He shouted to no effect. Taelere gripped the reins tighter and signalled the group to pick up speed. "Let's go, people," he admonished them. "If we don't hurry up, those two will probably take the town all on their own without us."

Facetious as he had made it sound, Taelere wouldn't have put it past them to do just that.

 

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CHAPTER EIGHTY-SIX

Argo moved with sure speed beneath her, the sharp, pounding hooves carved out clods of turf as they galloped down the hillside and straight into the raiders' camp. The pure exhilaration of speed and the coming confrontation roused her excitement, bursting forth in rich, deep laughter. The savage joy gave way to her battle cry as they burst through a bank of fog and into the tents. Her surroundings rushed by, blurs of colour that faded from her awareness as Xena's focus narrowed in on the fighting. The mass of people roiled thickly, like a single, slow moving beast to block her way into the town.

A frontal assault on the gate was quickly dismissed. Xena knew she could battle her way through it, but it would take far more time than she was willing to spend. That left the wall to contend with. Her blue eyes flicked over the broken and pockmarked stone and came to a sudden decision. A shift of her knees steered Argo hard to the right and the mare eagerly complied. They raced through the tents and out the other side, rounding one corner of the town's fortifications and bringing them completely out of sight of the gate.

With a strong hand to the reins, she pulled Argo to slippery halt. The mare pranced restlessly in response to her mistress' mood and bobbed her head sharply up and down giving a strident whinny. Xena shoved her sword in its scabbard and stared determinedly at the top of the wall that lay beyond the overflowing gully some twenty feet up. The distance and trajectory would be a bitch, and she would likely be unable to get much momentum, but there was no quicker way. "C'mon, Argo. Let's do this." She gritted her teeth and tried not to think about how much this was going to hurt if she missed. How much it was going to hurt even if it she didn't. The thought of Stephicles already on the other side of the wall was more than enough impetus to get her moving, however, and she took a deep breath to set herself.

"Hyah!" The heels of her boots dug into Argo's flanks, and the horse reared and leapt into a dead run straight for the gully. Placing her hands on the saddlebow, Xena pressed herself upwards and braced her feet beneath her on the seat. She crouched low and moved easily with the horse, maintaining her balance with one hand and grasping the reins with the other.

The gully with its murky depths and rain-rippled surface drew nearer and nearer. A little more...she urged. "Closer..." And suddenly she pulled the reins taut, bringing Argo to a sudden, sliding halt. The warrior kicked off, launching herself up and forward over the shallow moat. For a long and breathless moment the wind filled her ears and buffeted her body as her eyes focused on the edge of the wall, willing herself to stretch enough to make it. She extended her body to its fullest length, hands reaching out as the stonework rushed to meet her.

The breath whooshed out of her as she slammed hard into the unforgiving barrier with a dull clanging thud, her fingers scrabbling for purchase. Xena shook the hair from her eyes and gasped for breath while the rough, wet stone bit into her palms. The glance down she spared herself revealed a body scraped and bleeding, and a breastplate dented to uncomfortable proportions. But it had likely saved her from further damage, small consolation as that was at the moment.

Her sensitive ears made her pause for a moment and tilt her head to listen. Like something out of her nightmares, the audible and distinctive sounds of screams and fighting came from over the wall, fuelling her rage and lending strength to her tired muscles. She gave a huffing grunt and slowly pulled herself up far enough to swing a leg over the ledge, and she glanced around with wary caution. The parapet was a mess; chunks of rock, discarded weapons and bodies lay everywhere, but for the moment it was quiet.

The ring of metal was loud as she pulled her sword free from the sheath. Though attention was likely directed elsewhere, the warrior ran silently along the wall and further away from the gate. Stopping the invading army was a task she would reluctantly leave in Taelere's competent hands. Stephicles was her concern. From her vantage, she assessed the conditions below and noted that civilians now grappled along side the town's militia, and the fighting was fierce and close in the debris-filled streets. Smoke and muted fires raged and her soul, furious and torn, watched as the warlord's army slowly advanced, killing and pillaging by turns.

The sight fuelled her wrath and she finally looked away to search the rooftops for Athena's temple. She hadn't seen it during her time here, but she figured there had to be some kind of indication. At least a statue to her ego or something... she thought sardonically. A familiar wooden symbol caught her sharp eye, and the warrior grinned and took a firmer grip on her sword hilt. The streets, like the gate, were choked with people. It was a route she wasn't even interested in considering. So she would devise another way. You wanna be Ares' Chosen, huh? Think you're better than me? Let's see you try this one.

Xena began to run. Her long legs quickly picked up tremendous speed as she sprinted along the parapet. "Ai-yiyiyiyiyiyiyiy-chi-ya!" She gauged the distance between the ledge and the nearest roof and, using her incredible momentum, propelled herself off the catwalk and into a series of tight somersaults. The force of her landing snapped the wooden slates beneath her boot soles as she connected with their surface, and Xena dived into a forward roll to bleed off some of her speed before leaping her feet and dashing for the far edge of the housetop. Behind her the wood planks collapsed inwards leaving a dark gaping maw with her passing.

Another dozen rooftops and I'm there. She was so close now that nothing was going to stop her. "Get ready, you bastard." She gave a feral grin as her feet left the roof. I'm coming for you.

Part 12

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