~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
CHAPTER EIGHTY-SEVEN

If he been in a generous mood, Stephicles would have given the defenders credit for their efforts at the steps of the temple. They fought with a savage desperation that he could respect even if it wasn't particularly convenient. Sheer numbers finally broke through their ragged defense, and he gave a shout of victory as he gutted his opponent with his sword. He pushed the corpse off his blade and looked for his next quarry only to find that his men had the situation well in hand.

The three Neapolitans remaining fell back reluctantly, giving way before them, step by step up the stairs until their backs were to the doorway. Stephicles watched his men encircle them, their expressions ranging from anger to lurid enjoyment. Quite the opposite from the grimness of the three who stood there bravely, very aware that they were vastly outnumbered four to one.

"Surrender!" he ordered them as he rode up just behind his men. "Surrender, and I might let you live."

The man in the middle glanced at his companions and then spat on the stone steps at his feet. "Even if we believed that, I'd still tell you to go straight to Tartarus!" he shouted back. The expressions of the two men to either side of him showed resolute agreement.

Stephicles' brows lowered at their defiance. How dare they...? "Have it your way," he replied flatly. "Get them." Like baying hounds let off their lead, his men fell on them in an animalistic frenzy and Stephicles watched, unmoved, as his troops slaughtered the three militias. To his mind, last-stand heroics were all very romantic, but did little good to the dead hero.

In the quiet that followed, he lifted a leg over the horse's mane to drop nimbly to the cobble stone street. The structure stood before him, finally, and he nearly licked his lips with excited anticipation. He glanced behind him and noticed the God of War easing out of his own saddle, an expression of eagerness finally beginning to show through the usually sarcastic and disdainful visage. Not as uncaring as you'd like me to believe, are you then? Stephicles smirked to himself.

Yes, they were close, Stephicles knew. And soon he could exact his revenge on this gods-forsaken town and take his place as Ares' Chosen. The mantle had remained unclaimed for far too long, he felt, but he was already imagining the rightness of its fit as he took the steps up to the doorway. His men fanned out behind him to repel any more would-be heroes, but Stephicles ignored this as he stepped to one side of the entrance and peered into the darkness beyond. It was with some effort that he restrained himself from running recklessly into the building and tearing the place apart with his bare hands. So close now...

He turned to look over his shoulder. "I want you five to come with me. The rest of you keep watch in case they try to take back the temple."

Ares joined him near the door. "So what's your game plan?" He squinted into the gloomy interior.

"I think Laera's in there with the Spear. We're going to say hello to the dear old woman and reprimand her for her rudeness," Stephicles answered with an unpleasant smile. "After all, she did keep us waiting on her doorstep for almost two months. I think she owes me an apology before I hang her from the wall."

"You make warfare sound so polite and civilised," said Ares sardonically with a shake of his head. "Get on with it already."

With his men at his back and the God of War at his left hand, Stephicles moved through the doorway, bringing himself one step closer to the Spear of Mercy. And my rightful destiny.

 

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
CHAPTER EIGHTY-EIGHT

The fighting in the courtyard was brutal and vicious, and Kiran could barely keep from throwing herself into the fray. The iron manacles that bound her wrists denied her that option, however, and she tried to project an image of a broken prisoner as one of Stephicles troops came to join them at the wrecked remains of the gate.

"C'mon!" Mira yanked the lead on the chains and Kiran stumbled along behind her, not quite faking her pained limp. "You!" She pointed at the man that joined them. "Where's the General?"

"He's already on his way to the temple." He directed them to the main thoroughfare with his bloodied sword as he panted for breath. "What's with her?" He lifted his chin in Kiran's direction.

"Ares wants her." The comment caused a small ripple of fearful respect. Stephicles' troops generally steered clear of the small woman despite her deceptively mild appearance. One soldier's error in judgement had been enough of an example, especially after his ears had been found pegged to main table in the mess tent when only the night before he had harassed her. It didn't happen again. That the soldier hadn't been seen since was no small deterrent either.

"Ah," he said and nodded. "Do you... want an escort?" He was already eyeing the distance across the courtyard and preparing to call for support when Mira interrupted him.

"No, man your post. The gate's not entirely secure yet." She watched him nod again, and pulled Kiran along behind her as they edged their way around the fighting. "We're almost clear," Mira whispered to her. "Hang in there."

Kiran barely heard her. After having been away, even for a short time, the devastation she had been inured to during the months of their confinement was suddenly fresh in her eyes. It broke her heart to see how damaged her town had become. Each home, each storefront bore the marks of the siege to some degree or other. Some had been destroyed utterly and she shied away from wondering how many might lay dead or dying in the rubble. How we ever recover? Kiran wondered as Mira helped her over the remains of a table that had been dragged out into the street. Win first, she reminded herself.

"Holy gods!"

Kiran and Mira spun around and discovered a slew of wide-eyed, open-mouthed Neapolitans staring back at them from an alleyway half blocked with rocks and wood.

"It's her!" Kiran couldn't tell if they meant herself or Mira.

"Cut her throat!"

That clears that up, thought the captain and opened her mouth to correct them.

Vengeful shouts filled the air drowning her out, and suddenly a mob of people descended on the other woman. Kiran heard Mira give an angry yell as they were dragged back into the alley. The captain stumbled after her, pulled off balance by the girl's grip on the chain lead. Too many faces. Too many voices. Kiran couldn't make out anything of sense except that they meant to tear Mira apart.

"Stop it!" Kiran shouted above the noise and lunged forward, throwing herself into Mira and knocking them both down into the refuse littering the dank space. She spread herself atop the woman and tried to hide as much of Mira's body as she could. "Stop it!" the captain ordered again, her field of vision suddenly filled with sharp, edged weapons.

"Kiran!"

"She's alive!"

"The prophecy..."

"Ma'am, get away from her!"

"I told you guys she'd escape somehow!"

The jumble of voices coming at her from every which way was giving her a headache. "Shut up!" Kiran roared. She panted into the sudden silence.

"Would you get off of me?" came the muffled request from below her.

With a wince, Kiran rolled off her companion and sat up. "Shup up, the lot of you, and listen to me." When she saw she had their full attention, Kiran hooked a thumb in Mira's direction. "She's on our side. We're heading to the temple to help the council. You all need to pull back and re-group near the council hall for when we go back on the offensive. Spread the word; Xena's arrived, I'm alive, and help is on the way."

"She... is on our side?" one of them asked disbelievingly. A low angry muttering reverberated in the narrow alley.

"Yeah, and make sure you pass that one along too," Kiran answered as she shot Mira a sidelong glance. "I don't want anyone getting hurt. Got me?" she asked sternly and waited for their reluctant nods of acceptance.

The curly-haired woman looked back at her from beneath lowered lashes, a faint look of grateful surprise on her face.

"I need all of you if we're going to get through this, so take care of yourselves." Grins blossomed on their dirty faces and the wilted droop of their shoulders evaporated with her words. A renewed purpose lit their faces, and Kiran gave them a lop-sided smile at the transformation. "Go to it, now. Dalis or I will be with you soon." She was getting ahead of herself, she knew, but it wasn't a far stretch of the truth. One way or another they would see her again. The captain just didn't know if it would be at the hall or in the Fields.

Smiles like sunbursts paraded past her and many of them gazed at her almost worshipfully as they paused to touch Kiran or welcome her back much to her embarrassed wonder. One woman even knelt down to give her brief, tight hug before hurrying off to join the others leaving Kiran feeling as though her cheeks would overheat. She looked over to find Mira looking back with a ghost of a familiar smile on her face. "What?" she demanded, wishing she didn't feel so flushed.

"Nuthin'."

"Uh huh," Kiran replied, suspicious.

"Soooo... can I be in your fan club?"

She rolled her eyes and held her wrists out towards Mira. "Just get me out of these things. We've got a town to liberate."

* * *

 

"Damn it," Kiran hissed.

From behind their makeshift hiding spot, the two women looked across the square to where Stephicles was only now entering the temple. Several followed him in, including Ares, much to the captain's dismay.

"Great. Just great." She slid down from the windowsill and turned to put her back against the wall. "Ok, think. What now?" Kiran glanced over as Mira knelt next to her, the former acolyte's eyes still on the scene outside. A short sword was held tight in one hand, and blood covered the length of her right arm and most of her chest and face. The fight through the town had been tough and Kiran could admit to herself that she was glad to be fighting beside her instead of against her again. Given her weakness and injuries, Kiran had been hard pressed to keep up with the smaller woman's cold ferocity. She had watched with shock and sick amazement as the spy took her own troops from behind, cutting down as many as possible before they realised the ruse and fought back. Not that it helped. Between the two of them they were able to kill enough to clear a path and make their way to this abandoned home.

Mira suddenly turned to her. "I've an idea."

"Let's hear it," Kiran said, more than ready to get moving again. Sitting here was making her stiff and achy, and she was already in enough pain to begin with.

"I know another entrance to the temple," Mira said as she reached out to grab Kiran's arm. "C'mon."

"Mira-"

"You're the one in such a hurry, so be quiet and follow me!"

"I liked you better when you weren't so pushy," Kiran grumbled as she draped an arm around Mira's shoulder for support. She allowed the spy to lead the way while she watched closely to see if Stephicles' men would notice them as they worked their way around the edge of the square and towards the back of the temple.

Mira lowered her next to a back stoop, pressing them both closer against the wooden wall. "Here," she said, slightly out of breath. "Put these back on."

'These' were the manacles that the captain had worn earlier. Kiran stared at the length of chain and iron and then back up at the other woman in consternation. "Again?"

Mira grabbed them out of Kiran's hands and began putting the iron bands around her wrists. "Just put them on!"

She wanted to protest and it must have shown, because the former acolyte was suddenly in her face.

"Listen to me!" Mira spat. "If we run into anyone in there, I can say that I'm taking you to Stephicles. I won't lock them. You'll be able to get yourself free." Bloodstained fingers worked the metal into the illusion of bondage, and Kiran could see for herself just how easily she would be able to slip out of them.

"I told you, you can trust me," Mira reminded her and then turned to open the door.

Kiran stared at her back as they slipped inside, surprised and disconcerted to realise that she believed her.

 

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
CHAPTER EIGHTY-NINE

Fear rippled through the bard's chest as Chiaro leapt over the rushing waters of a rain-flooded stream and they left the dubious protection of the woods behind. She jounced in the saddle and winced as the skin of her thighs, chafed and tender from hours of riding, slapped against the wet leather as they landed. Chiaro's hooves scrabbled in the mud on the other side and picked up speed again, seemingly able to sense her rider's impatient anxiety.

The news that Xena had abandoned the Kozani army on the road spoke volumes to her of the warrior's desperate state of mind. Guilt-laden memories plagued Xena, and she had seen it often enough to know it to be the truth. Especially back in the room they had shared in Neapolis the morning after the catapults had begun their assault. The constant reminders had made the warrior... Irritable... impatient... unmanageable... driven... stubborn...single minded... "And that spells Xena," Gabrielle concluded under her breath. But she could imagine Xena all too easily, being so close and not wanting to waste a single moment that might otherwise ensure Stephicles' victory, creating a tragic reoccurrence of past events.

Gabrielle worried over what act the culmination of Xena's dark memories might bring her to commit in order to keep it from happening. The depth of the warrior's guilt would only deepen if she were forced into something that she would regret. And that was something that Gabrielle wouldn't allow to happen if there was something she could do about it.

Her deep introspection was brought to a halt by the unavoidable sting of the heavy rain. With the leafy barrier of the forest ceiling gone, the bard was quickly soaked through her already damp clothes. The bard shivered when the wind stroked her bare skin. Tendrils of long hair fluttered in the breeze she created with her passing and she blinked often to remove the rainwater clinging to her eyelashes.

Her breath seized in her chest at her first sight of Neapolis spewing thick plumes of smoke. Licks of fire illuminated the gate despite the rain, and Gabrielle clutched the Spear tighter as she rode pell-mell through the eerily silent enemy encampment and onwards towards the town. The details of the weak fiction she had concocted after leaving Kozani's army fell to ruin when she realised that there was no one at the gate to even tell it to.

It was easy to see, as they closed the distance, that the fact that the gate frame was ablaze might be the reason. One door hung crazily from its hinges, coated with living flame that moved hypnotically across its surface, hissing and spitting at the falling rain. It was impossible to see beyond the circle of fire and smoke, but Gabrielle was able to make out the sounds of fighting emanating from the other side, punctuated by shouts and the clang of weapons.

Must all be inside the town by now, she thought and worried at her lower lip as she eyed the fire and pulled Chiaro to a halt. The mare pawed the ground and fidgeted, unnerved by the smell and heat. She could relate, not liking the look of the out of control wash of brilliant orangey-reds and rosy-golds. A small narrow opening was the best she could hope for and Gabrielle perversely wished she could have the ill-fitting and horribly uncomfortable helmet and armour back. Much good it did her sitting at the bottom of the Pindus River somewhere. And even supposing she got past the gate, that left the mêlée undoubtedly taking place on the other side. As much as she had hoped to avoid fighting, it didn't look as though that would be a possibility.

Well, I didn't come all this way to stop now. Gabrielle pushed her sodden hair back from her face and took a deep breath. The heightened sense of urgency was stronger than before, and she pressed a hand against her chest as if to contain the erratic pounding of her heart. "Hang on, Xena," she whispered aloud. If the man she had spoken with was telling her the truth, her friend was probably already inside. The knowledge that the warrior was now so close drove out any further thought but that of finding the warrior.

She could see enough of a gap in the flames to allow them to pass through and their rain-logged state might provide some small protection. She hoped. "We can do this, Chiaro," Gabrielle encouraged her nervous mount. She clicked her tongue and tapped her heels into the horse's sides. The mare fought her, turning side on to the gate in an attempt to move away from the heat, but Gabrielle regretfully sawed the reins and shortened the lead until Chiaro's head was tucked down and straight. Kicking her heels into the damp flanks produced a whinny of protest from the horse, but the animal obeyed and shot forward, running full tilt towards the gate.

Thick, sooty smoke blew across her path and Gabrielle could feel the blistering heat coming off the massive wooden door. The rain sizzled as it hit, and Gabrielle took a deep gulp of air and pressed herself low against Chiaro. Her hands trembled and she closed her eyes, fixing her thoughts on Xena instead of the fire about to engulf her. I'm coming. I'm coming. The words repeated themselves over and over again, beating to the tempo of her heart. The need to find her was too great to be denied, and she flattened herself down as Chiaro's muscles suddenly bunched to hurl them up and through the circle of flames.

Searing hot air rushed over her. The feel of the heat, like a heavy wool blanket against her bare skin, was almost more than she could stand. The landing jammed the saddlehorn into her midsection and Gabrielle took a gagging breath of smoke, coughing as it choked her. Blind and breathless, she clung to the saddle until the thick, oppressive curtain parted before Chiaro's panicked charge into the thick of the fighting in the courtyard.

She used her forearm to wipe the smoke-induced tears from her reddened eyes as she struggled to make sense of the noise and movement. "Xena!" Her voice was hoarse from the smoke and nearly lost in the roar of the battle. The warrior was nowhere to be seen. A sudden grip on her arm nearly pulled the bard out of the saddle. Gabrielle held on tightly and leaned back, pulling a dirty, leering face out of the haze and into view. His hand on her was wet and clammy and she grimaced in disgust as she hauled off with the Spear and slammed it into the side of his head. Her attacker disappeared into the crowd, and Gabrielle took a shuddering breath as she urged Chiaro forward and glanced about her wildly.

Oh gods, she's not here. Now what? she wondered frantically. Think! Where would she go? A sword suddenly appeared from out of the smoke, and she lifted the Spear to counter it. She'd be wherever he is. The shove forward almost set her off-balance, but the bard recovered and followed it up with a stinging crack across the face. Stephicles wants Athena's weapon. Where would they keep it? She narrowly dodged a rock thrown across her path as she kneed Chiaro forward again in her attempt to break free of the courtyard and move deeper into the town. Athena's tribute...her temple? She coughed roughly on the smoke, feeling a little light-headed as she searched for a way out. Xena, is that where you are? The thought of her friend was accompanied by a sudden wave of disorientation, making her feel as though her stomach was turning cartwheels below her pounding heart. Gabrielle collapsed limply against Chiaro's mane from the sudden nauseousness, and wondered if she was about to be violently sick here in the middle of the battle.

"Xena..." The hoarsely whispered name was lost in the noise. Blue eyes and a rare, full smile filled her mind's eye, and Gabrielle gritted her teeth against the wave of longing and need that filled her. Something, some noise, she thought, some deeper sense perhaps, made her turn her head. Nearly hidden from view beyond the fighting was an alleyway between two buildings. It looked clear and abandoned, and right now it represented a quick and welcome exit from this craziness she found herself trapped within here by the gate.

Determination welled up from somewhere deep inside, washing away the disorientation and giving her a sudden burst of forceful energy. "Yah!" she called out to Chiaro, and the mare turned and leapt deeper into the fray. It seemed as though a wall of soldiers sprang up to stop her and suddenly Gabrielle found herself under attack and battling fiercely from her precarious seat. She blocked a particularly vicious swipe, and kicked out to knock another raider backwards. You're not going to stop me, she told them with a mental snarl. No, she wasn't about to let them slow her down. Her defensive moves became sharper, more focused, and she never noticed the burning glow that emanated from the length of wood she wielded with such single-minded tenacity.

They gave way before her, as much for the mysterious light that surrounded her as the painful persuasion offered by her well-timed hits. Angry and fearful for her friend, Gabrielle paused only long enough to disable one more before having Chiaro force her way through the last of the fighting and into the sudden quiet gloom of the alleyway.

She panted for breath and gave no thought to the fact that she led the mare blindly through the maze of back streets with no notion of how she knew where she was heading. Forward. It was a sense that came from her gut, and she tilted her head as if listening aloud for a direction that was spoken directly into her soul. Forward. And Gabrielle followed it, her green eyes fixed and unblinking as she followed the call that led her with unerring accuracy through the town and, she hoped, back to Xena.

They charged through a wall of smoke, oblivious to the spouts of fire gutting the building that loomed next to her. Gabrielle ignored the rumbling crash that signalled the collapse of the wall behind her, and merely kicked Chiaro to a faster gait. The urgency that held her in its grip stole thought and reason, and she was barely aware of pulling back on the reins and flinging herself out of the saddle. The bard tore her cloak loose and let it fall as she began to run through the rain and past an overturned cart to throw herself at a pile of rubble that stood between her and the temple that bore a familiar symbol.

A scream from within the building brought Gabrielle to a sudden, rigid halt and her eyes widened in alarm. "No..." she breathed. Panic drove her to leap off the pile of debris. The landing was rough though, and she winced as she rolled and struggled to her feet. Dear gods, don't let it be too late, she prayed as she alternately limped and ran for the steps that led to the doorway and straight into the arms of the guards stationed at its opening.

 

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
CHAPTER NINETY

They barely had time to prepare themselves before the door shattered inwards, hurling chunks and splinters of wood across the crowded stone chamber beneath Athena's temple. A soldier's body landed roughly amidst the remains of the door, her grunt of pain lost in the shrieks and screams of those hiding within. Three more militia, wounded and beaten, were shoved into the room and into the ranks of their townsfolk.

Torchlight flickered through the room casting fearsome shadows. The children, clutched firmly in adult arms, cried in shrill, hiccupping sobs or posed strident and unanswerable questions for all to hear. Even in the uncertain and wavering light, Laera caught the subtle exchange of glances the women gave to each other in ashen-faced communication, their expressions scared, but resolute. The bonds of motherhood made words unnecessary; the looks in their eyes as they beheld the children said they would be kept safe.

Stephicles' men entered hard on the heels of the militia. Their close matching leather and plate armour glittered red and wet in the light, and Laera blanched to think that much of it was likely from those who had attempted to protect the temple and its occupants. The woman on the floor struggled quickly to her feet and charged the invaders amidst more shrieks and screams. Her sword strike was blocked, blocked again, and her opponent executed a feint that allowed his sword hilt to crack her across the face. Her eyes rolled back in her head before she collapsed bonelessly to the floor.

The townspeople backed up, opening a semicircle of space around the doorway as more of the soldiers streamed into the room. Laera found their blatant arrogance and smirking grins offensive, and her helplessness in the face of their almost certain victory only deepened her anger. The militia, angered as well, stepped forward and would have attacked, but she quickly waved her arm at them, attempting to intervene. "Stand down," she called out. The councillor wondered for a moment if they would disregard her order. Their conflicted expressions told her how badly they wished to exact some kind of hurt on an enemy that would dare to treat them so, and on holy ground besides. "She needs your help," Laera nodded her head towards the woman lying unconscious on the floor. At her prompting, the militia gathered their comrade and brought her to safety beyond the edge of the crowd of people before returning to the front of the group.

"Stay where you are." The mercenary that spoke levelled the point of his spear at the room. His fellows stepped forward with him, and they faced off against the people who shifted and stirred, their voices raised in anger and fear, mingled with the crying of babies and small children.

Heavy steps on stone. The rhythmic sound grew louder, breeding with it an air of heavy tension as silence fell throughout the chamber. A shadow filled the doorway moments before a tall man, bedecked in a rain-soaked hooded cloak entered the room behind the soldiers.

Behind him with silent tread, another man darkened the doorway, larger than the first and seemingly exuding a darker, more palpable menace. His features, though hard, were graced with a small smile. Dark eyes glistened as they touched hers, and Laera felt a flicker of unease and confusion at the knowing look that he gave her. The heavily muscled man leaned back against the wall, the opening of his vest parting to reveal a small piece of silver jewellery that caught the torchlight in the room. Her eyesight wasn't what it had once been, but she could have sworn it was a miniature sword that hung from his left ear.

She pulled her eyes away from him when, with a smooth and casual motion, the robed figure drew back the heavy, dark material of his cloak revealing a tawny-haired man with strong features and dark eyes. There was an unmistakable sense of presence and intelligence, and she watched as he proceeded to take in the silent and wide-eyed occupants with a look of calm and curious interest. His face broke into a pleasant smile as if visiting with old friends as he stepped between his men and strolled along the perimeter of the people, his hands clasped behind his back. Where he passed, they pressed backwards, as if seeking to avoid contact or notice.

Laera watched him begin at the other side of the room, pausing now and again to look at the women appraisingly. Offering a smile to one of Athena's priestesses. A nod to one of the militia who pressed his lips shut in an effort not to voice some comment. And finally, slowing to stand before a little girl who, in spite of the tight grip and frightened look from her mother, showed only an intense curiosity.

"Are you the bad man?" she asked and pushed the fall of straight, blonde hair back from her face.

"Cara!" Her mother paled, her eyes darting back and forth between her audacious daughter and the now smiling warlord.

Stephicles ignored the woman's outburst and returned the frank examination instead. "Yes." He drew the word out as he slowly crouched down to come face to face with her. "I'm the bad man." His dark eyes roved over her face, and Laera realised that he was interested in seeing what the little girl might do next.

Cara clenched her fists at the confirmation, her face tightening into a mask of sudden anger. "You hurt my brother."

"Did I?" Stephicles asked softly. "Is he here or is he... gone?"

"He's gone," Cara told him in her clear, light voice. "The house fell down and he's gone. Why did you do that?" She raised her fists and looked as though she might strike him, but her mother pulled her back and held the girl against her body.

"I hurt your brother because your leader won't give me what I want. When you don't do what your mother wants, you get punished, don't you?" He waited for her slow reluctant nod, and Laera felt a sickening twist in her stomach as she watched the bastard manipulate the child's understanding. "It was necessary to punish you all because your leader wouldn't do what I wanted."

"That's not fair!" Cara cried and she turned to glare at Laera from across the room. "We didn't do anything wrong!"

The sudden weight of guilt hit her hard, and Laera felt herself pinned by the child's accusing gaze. Goddess forgive me for failing them. She lifted her eyes from Cara's and couldn't help but notice a few similar looks from the adults who quickly bowed their heads or looked away. It pained her to wonder how many of them blamed her for the loss of their town and loved ones.

"Ah," she heard Stephicles murmur as his eyes came to rest on her. "So there you are."

She watched the warlord pat the girl gently on the cheek before rising to his feet and resuming his stroll towards her. He stopped a few feet away, crossed his muscular arms and stood silently, just watching her.

Did he mean to frighten her? Laera stared back and waited with the patience of stones, wondering what his next move might be. Let him speak first. The tension in the room rose another notch and even Stephicles' men shifted behind him.

He lifted his chin a bit and finally spoke. "It was rather rude to keep me waiting outside for so long," came the quiet rebuke.

The man's calm and steady demeanour made her edgy. The councillor might have known how to handle rage, or violence, but this... Polite conversation was not what she expected. "You wanted what was not yours to take," Laera reminded him.

"Ah, but it is," he disagreed. "I've conquered your little town by force of arms and I claim it as spoils of war. You could have avoided all this... unpleasantness," He waved one hand towards the doorway, "... if you had only co-operated in the beginning."

"Could I have?" Laera asked, a touch of cynicism colouring her voice. "Would it have quelled your bloodlust?"

"We'll never know now, will we?" He offered her a brief smile before taking a step closer to loom over her.

The councillor refused to flinch as she looked up at him. "Do you mind?" Laera raised a cool eyebrow at him. "The only thing intimidating about you is the odour." The flash of anger was quick, but she caught it and it gave her a shallow measure of satisfaction to know that he wasn't entirely imperturbable. A smug expression threatened to ruin her, but Laera maintained her stern look and gave him the full force of her disapproval. Vaguely, she wondered if he would be self-conscious enough to give himself a sniff, but he surprised her by laughing instead.

"As amusing as it might be to trade quips with you, I'm beginning to get impatient. Where is it?"

Was there any point in stalling? Was there anything to gain? "I don't have it," Laera answered finally.

"And I don't believe you," Stephicles immediately responded. "Lying to me will avail you nothing except my wrath."

"I tell you again, it's not here," Laera insisted. It was true. The spearhead was tucked safely inside a box beneath a stone in the altar upstairs.

"Not having it and it not being here are two different things," observed the warlord. "What is it with you Neapolitans that you feel a need to be so difficult? Your captain of the guard chose a similar route and paid a hefty price for her lack of cooperation."

Kiran? Oh, Athena. "Price?" she demanded to know. "What did you do to her, you animal?!"

"I had her tortured and beaten," he admitted freely and appeared to enjoy the look of pain that crossed her face. "She's dead by now, I should think." A pause. "Tell me where the Spear is." It was a continuous prod, like water wearing at stone.

"Don't tell him! Don't te-" The townsman who spoke from the crowd was immediately pummelled into silence.

"I'm getting tired of this," Stephicles sighed gustily. He tapped his lips with the tip of one finger and looked passed the councillor's shoulder, obviously deep in thought. The sudden transformation from blank concentration to suddenly delight struck a deep note of trepidation in Laera and she caught her breath as he turned on his heel and strode back towards the other side of the room. Even before he stopped, Laera had a sudden dreadful premonition and followed after him, but not in time. Cara's mother cried out in protest as the warlord scooped Cara up in his arms and held her close to his body. He swung around to face the councillor who was now only a step or two away.

"Please," she breathed urgently. "Put her down."

The child's mother threw herself against him, tugging on his arm. "Cara! Cara! Let her go!"

Laera put out a hand in warning. "Rene-"

"Bitch!"

"Momma!" Cara yelled as Stephicles backhanded the woman. She stumbled backwards and fell to the floor, one hand pressed against her cheek. Rene sobbed and reached out to her girl, who held out an arm in response, the small, chubby fingers wiggling with earnest determination. "Momma!"

"Kill her if she tries that again," Stephicles ordered his men. He hefted the girl in his arms and turned them away from the woman on the floor, shaking her a little to get her attention. "Listen to me, Cara. Listen!"

The little girl's chin trembled and her eyes were bright and shiny, but she did not cry.

"Be good and I'll help you see your brother again."

Laera watched the little girl draw a deep breath of hope, her eyes widening at the prospect. "You bastard," she muttered through clenched teeth, understanding that his words had not been meant for Cara at all, but rather for her.

"Yes, quite," Stephicles agreed amiably. "Now then." His brows drew together as he looked at her pointedly. "Before we were interrupted, I believe we were discussing the Spear. You're going to tell me where it is. Because..." Stephicles looked up at Cara before continuing, "if you don't..." He glanced back at the councillor. "Then I believe there's a debt I owe you. Some hundred or so lives. Torched."

Laera's breath caught at the implication. "You wouldn't." A sudden memory of a fire-filled cottage invaded her vision, a memory of searching frantically through the smoke and calling for her granddaughter Sasha. Searching until smoke and darkness had overtaken her. Sasha, with her bright smile and chestnut curls. Everything burning... burning... "You wouldn't," she repeated again, appalled, the horror suddenly fresh in her mind.

"I most certainly would," he assured her with a smile. "No doubt there's still some pitch to be found. We'll do it here. One by one. I'll make certain you have an unobstructed view of the proceedings. And we can start with Cara here," he looked up into the little girl's amber eyes. "You'd like that, wouldn't you, my dear? You want to see your brother, don't you?" The little girl's head bobbed enthusiastically up and down, a pained look of wishful joy on her face. Stephicles gave her a full smile and reached up to tap his finger lightly against her nose, joining in her laughter.

The easy smile still on his face, Stephicles returned his attention to the trembling woman. Laera put a wrinkled hand to her chest and felt the erratic and painful throbbing of her heart beating beneath the paper-thin surface of her flesh. Her grey eyes flitted around the room in appeal for help, or support, just something that might give her an idea what to do. Faces etched with horror and shock were all she could see, and she realised that the responsibility was hers. As it always had been.

"I'll make certain the ladies go first," Stephicles said in his smooth and cultured voice. "I believe in being gallant."

"You wouldn't dare." The words emerged from between tightly clenched teeth.

The warlord gave her a long look before tickling Cara under the chin. "Would you care to play a game, little one?" he asked as he walked slowly to the wall where a bracket held one of the torches, its light glowing fitfully.

"Stop!" she shouted, putting out a hand in entreaty.

He turned back to her, one brow raised expectantly. "You have something you wish to tell me?"

Laera closed her eyes and bowed her head for a moment, trying to buy time as she thought furiously. Finally... "If I tell you where it is, what assurances do I have that you won't harm anyone?"

"I give you no such assurances. If I choose to hang you all from the walls, I'll do so," Stephicles finished over the worried murmurings and low moaning sobs that grew behind him. "You defied me, all of you." He tossed a glare around the room before returning his attention to the diminutive woman. "But you most of all. The only assurance I'll offer is that you will die. By nightfall, if not sooner. Your people need to see what becomes of those who attempt to thwart me."

His words should have had some greater impact, but Laera felt nothing save a soul-deep fear for her people and a weariness that went beyond common expression. "Not the children," Laera begged softly. "Please... not the children." The iron will that had sustained her for so long was crumbling, and her vision wavered with the tears she fought to hold back. "Don't hurt them, I beg you."

Stephicles stepped closer. The scent of sweat and wet leather filled her nose, and Laera looked up to see the handsome visage looking back at her that hid the rank and evil nature behind the warm brown eyes. "Tell me and I'll consider it."

It was a small hope, but one she had to grasp for with both hands. Forgive me, my goddess. "It's upstairs. Beneath the altar," she whispered brokenly.

"There. That wasn't so hard." Stephicles handed Cara to a nearby soldier much to the man's dismay. The soldier and the little girl stared at one another, neither of them liking the new arrangement in the slightest. "Bring her. Bring all of them actually. We may require more... persuasion. You, however," he said as he came to the councillor's side and drew his sword, "you, I will escort personally." The warlord wrapped his large hand around her upper arm and tilted his head towards the stairway. "Shall we?"

She allowed him to lead her towards the shadowed opening, but she looked beyond him, alerted by the growing clamour behind her as his troops waded eagerly into the crowd of people. Threats and shoving ensued, and the children were gathered up as the group began pressing forward at the solders' ungentle prompting.

A chuckle to her left startled her, and Laera turned her head abruptly and blinked as a dark face suddenly filled her view. The tall, muscular man stared at her and she felt an inexplicable wave of awe and fear as she brushed past him and started up the steep passageway. He followed after them, the torchlight flickering off the intricate silver designs on his vest. The whole time he was behind her, Laera wanted to reach back to scratch at the nervous itch he inspired.

Each step seemed a slow, prolonged effort, the labour making her heart flutter in her chest as her breath drew short, and each shuffling step held in it the tone of their imminent defeat. The only consolation she could glean from the wreckage of the past two months was that she had managed to keep them all alive for a little bit longer, and deny their enemy his goal. The future was an uncertain commodity, and one that Laera knew that, for her at least, would be short lived. The others, however... Athena preserve them. She could not imagine what would follow once the Spear fell into Stephicles' hands. Will any of us survive? It was a dubious prospect. The elderly woman could only hope their deaths would be quick. But, given the cold inhumanity with which he threatened to burn the children, one after another, there was little that gave her cause to think that he would grant them any such mercy.

Xena, where are you? Laera wondered. There had been no sign of any help and she had to assume that the journey had resulted in death, failure, or just as unthinkable, the possibility of betrayal from the Warrior Princess. Defeat, after all this time, was a bitter stain on her soul.

* * *

"Where are they?" Mira muttered. They had snuck into the back of the temple and found the place eerily devoid of people. The manacles had been dispensed with, much to Kiran's relief, and they had continued on deeper into the building, through the living quarters, past the kitchen and into the preparation rooms. With patience stretched nearly to the breaking point, the two women had agreed to hunker down and keep a look out in both directions. The sudden appearance of weak torchlight alerted Kiran and she reached behind her to drag Mira forward.

"Hey!"

"Shh!"

"Don't tell me to shh!"

Kiran slapped a hand over the other woman's mouth and pulled her behind the doorway. "I hear voices," she said into the spy's ear. "There." She pointed toward the side of the hall.

"Oh, gods," Mira breathed. "He's got her."

* * *

They emerged from the stairwell and into the middle of the main chamber of the temple. "Show me," he ordered her and she felt his hand tighten its grip around her arm.

"Priestess?" She looked back at the crowd of people filling the room and searched for the woman who led Athena's clergy. A lady of middling years eased through the throng and came to her side. "The tribute, if you please?"

"Councillor," the woman inclined her blonde head and moved with regal sureness towards the altar.

It took far less time than she would have hoped and when the priestess finally stood up, the head of the Spear of Mercy in her hands, Laera felt the tears come to her eyes and stream down her face at the sight of it.

Without taking his eyes off the object of his obsession, he lifted a hand towards the soldier with the spear in his hands and gestured for him to hand it over. He took the weapon in hand, quickly turned it to rest the point down on the floor and then with a quick motion, slammed the heel of his boot against the base of the spearhead, breaking it off with a loud, sharp snap, making everyone jump.

"Bring it here," the warlord demanded in a clear, strong voice.

Even from where she stood, Laera could see the excitement written clearly on his features, the quickened rise and fall of his chest as the woman reverently carried it balanced on her palms. The priestess paused before him, her fingers suddenly wrapping around the length of gleaming metal. "My lord, I beg you to reconsider," she said softly.

"Give it to me, or else I'll kill you and take it from you anyway," Stephicles informed her impatiently. "I'm tired of delays."

Laera watched the woman stare calmly up at the warlord for a long, tense moment more before opening her hands and raising them towards the hateful man. There was a small sound of appreciation from him as he regarded his prize. "At last," he murmured and lifted the weapon slowly from its resting spot. Held up to the wavering light, the metal seemed to give off a rich, golden glow. It was warm in his hand as he brought it to the broken spear haft and held it to one end. With a sudden flash of light, it fused itself to the wood, and Stephicles gave a shout of triumph as he thrust it into the air towards the woven image of Athena.

"Ares!" he called. "I have won your Spear!" He whirled and the crowd backed away from the glowing tip of the weapon. "I am worthy to be your Chosen," he declared and met the god's dark eyes.

"So you have," Ares agreed. "You still have some unfinished business though." The God of War looked pointedly over at Laera. Stephicles' gave her that boyish smile and advanced on her where she stood at the front edges of the group.

"Goddess, no..." came a moan from within the crowd.

"Don't hurt her!"

"No," Laera husked as her knees buckled and deposited her on the cold, stone floor. Though she knew it would do her no good, she still raised an arm to defend herself.

The warlord raised the Spear tip high. "You were a good opponent, old woman, I salute you. But, the loser must pay the final price." The muscles in his arms bunched as he prepared for the final thrust.

The last of her will gave her the strength to meet his eyes; her teeth clenched in angry defiance to the last possible moment as she raised her head and awaited the final blow. Athena, preserve them...

* * *

Mira wrapped both her arms around the captain and held her struggling body in place as the priestess proffered the head of the weapon. "Stop," she hissed. "Kiran!"

"Let me go!"

"There's nothing you can do," Mira argued.

Kiran subsided for a moment, her breath coming in ragged pants as she watched him accept the weapon and call out Ares' name. "You sonuvabitch," she whispered at the man and then had to suddenly shield her eyes from the bright flash of light that pulsed from the end of the weapon. She glanced around the room and towards the door, hoping against hope that the Warrior Princess might suddenly show up. I know I wasn't imagining her! I wasn't! But still there was no sign. Where is she?

A grip on her arm made her look back at the scene unfolding in the middle of the temple's alter, and the sight of Stephicles bearing down on Neapolis' councillor nearly made her heart stop in her chest. The warlord raised the spear high, and she could see the flex and flow of his body as he readied himself to slam the weapon down into frail and unresisting flesh below.

"NO!" Kiran screamed. She threw off Mira's hand and flung herself out of their hiding spot and towards the suddenly frozen tableau. "You bastard!"

"Kiran!" Mira yelled out behind her, following hot on her heels.

Stephicles spun around, a look of total disbelief in his eyes as he caught sight of the militia's captain running as fast as her injured body would allow her. "Ares!"

"Kiran?" From her place on the floor, Laera followed his gaze and blinked in shocked surprise. "Oh, my goddess. Kiran!" The old woman raised a trembling hand to her mouth as not one, but two spectres resurrected themselves in her sight.

The God of War was already in motion, his fist a sparking blue blaze of crackling power. He squinted as he watched his target close the distance on Stephicles. "Time's up!" Ares whipped his arm forward and the ball of energy streaked across the room.

"Look out!" Mira shouted and leapt forward.

Kiran felt the explosion of light and heat all around her as Mira tackled her and brought them to the floor in a bone-jarring landing. She lay there for a second, stunned, before reaching back. "Get up! Get up!" Kiran shook her, her eyes still on the warlord and the God behind him. "Mira!"

"Still alive?" Ares growled when he saw her move. "What is it with you?"

Frantic with annoyance and fear, she shook the woman again and looked down. The biting comment on her lips died the moment she saw the ghastly injury gaping through the burned material of the back of Mira's uniform. The power of Ares' attack had seared through the leather and into her skin, and the burnt flesh and muscle beneath were blackened with the force of it. A great shudder went through Mira's body as she lifted her head. Sweat clung to the furrowed brow above the familiar brown eyes, and the corner of one mouth quirked with the ghost of familiar humour. "Told you... I'd reach you... in time," she gasped out in weak breaths. "Don't you dare... die now." The brown eyes closed and her body went limp beneath Kiran's hand.

"You either," Kiran ordered as she regained her feet and continued towards Stephicles. The man had regained his aplomb and was already coming for her, the Spear in hand.

"You again," he sneered at her. "You have more lives than a cat."

"More luck, too," Kiran retorted and wished she could get her hands on a weapon.

With a roar of anger, Stephicles suddenly attacked, slamming the butt end of the Spear across her face. Sparkling lights blinded her, and the air was knocked out of her as she hit a solid surface. It was with disoriented surprise that she realised she was sprawled on the floor. A boot heel against her throat forced her attention upwards, and she struggled as the point of the Spear was laid along side of her face.

"Your luck's finally run out," he said, enunciating it very clearly. The tip of the Spear trailed along her skin, leaving an angry red scratch until it hovered, just barely touching the vulnerable flesh of her throat. "Neapolis dies with you."

Kiran glanced away and looked across the room. The eyes of the people she had tried to hold safe stared back at her, their expressions a mix of horror, helplessness, fear and rage. With her gaze she held them all, the look of sadness and apology plain in her eyes. Athena, keep them safe. A futile wish perhaps, but a last and heartfelt one. She heard his intake of breath and knew it was coming. The end was near.

The pressure was building and Kiran felt her body clenching with it. Just as the point pierced her skin the ceiling above them exploded in a sudden and violent rain of wood and slate, and screams filled the air as something larger and darker fell into the room. In a shaft of light from the hole above, a figure crouched low, the fingers of one hand spread wide to touch the floor while the other held a long sword in the other that reflected the grey, uncertain light. Ignoring the crash and shatter of falling debris, the raven head lifted and from the veil of shadow hiding the features came the menacing light of two icy blue eyes.

Kiran watched as the figure rose to a seemingly impossible height with slow and sinuous grace. Smoke blackened, gore splattered, wraith-like... yet this vision from Tartarus might well have been an avenging demon from Elysium for all the sudden hopeful joy that surged through Kiran's heart.

A smoky voice, hard as steel, rang through the room. "Remember me?" it asked.

"Xena!" Stephicles spat a moment before chaos erupted.

 

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
CHAPTER NINETY-ONE

Blinded by her overwhelming need, Gabrielle didn't notice the guards until it was almost too late. Her limping run brought her into their midst and she cursed under her breath as they immediately moved to surround her. The call that tugged at her being was intensifying to almost painful proportions and the bard nearly sobbed her frustration at this latest delay. Anger throbbed beneath the surface, fury that they would keep her when Xena needed her now, more than ever.

With a soaring cry, Gabrielle charged their line, heedless of the consequences as the remaining mercenaries closed with her to meet her attack.

The bard would have no memory of the fight afterwards, no recollection of the brilliant light that shone forth from the Spear as she wielded it with unerring skill. Every movement of her body seemed part of a graceful yet deadly dance, and the guards' disbelief and frustration mounted as their attacks met with only empty air as she slid through their ranks and beneath their blows. What daunted them further was the vacant intensity in her eyes, the frightening level of focus that seemed to allow her to sense them even before they moved. The mystical glow and uncommon frenzy drove them back, and Stephicles' men grew desperate in the face of the whirlwind demolishing their numbers with such seeming ease.

Gabrielle ducked beneath a wild slash, spun low and brought the Spear around in a wicked arc to connect loudly with one of her enemy's knees. The resounding crunch of bone was drowned out by his scream as he dropped his weapon and collapsed. Without looking, the bard thrust backwards with all her strength and felt the vibrating impact through her hands as the end slammed into the gut of the attacker behind her. She jumped to her feet and swung around to deliver a follow-up blow to the chest that knocked the man flying down the steps of the temple and into the mud.

Two engaged her at once, their expressions of fear growing as she defended ably against their combined attacks and counterattacked in turn, the ends of the Spear whirling with unexpected speed and accuracy. A cross strike knocked the axe from one opponent's hand, and the other end whipped around to crack against his temple, felling him instantly. Without a pause, Gabrielle turned on the next soldier, trading blows back and forth with a clatter and rattle. The man's sword blows became more erratic and the bard leaned to one side, allowing the blade to hum by her by bare inches. In his moment of imbalance, she whirled around, her two-handed grip on the Spear lending greater power to the hit that took him across the back and sent him face first into a stone pillar.

Gabrielle, like a thing possessed advanced on the last man standing. The bulky mercenary took one look at her, dropped his weapon and ran, preferring to risk Stephicles' wrath than that of this she-devil who moved with inhuman grace. Flinty green eyes watched him run for barely a second before turning back towards the temple entrance. She stood there for a long moment before she was caught up once again in the undeniable pull that demanded her obedience. Xena, the whispered voice was filled with a fierce and desperate longing that sent her rushing forward into the darkness of the temple in search of her friend.

 

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
CHAPTER NINETY-TWO

She laid low in a flattened stance with one hand stretched wide across the stone floor for balance. Slowly, deliberately, Xena unfurled to her full height, her focused wrath fully aroused, as she took in the sight of the man responsible for resurrecting this nightmare from her past. The icy blue eyes emanated a danger that was palpable to the farthest reaches of the temple.

Frightened and excited voices filled the room, punctuated by the shattering tiles that sent jagged shrapnel flying across the chamber, but Xena ignored all of it. The whole of her being was fastened firmly on the man standing some twenty feet away. At last, her mind whispered savagely, at last. He stood there before her, arrogant and cocky, the makeshift Spear held in one strong hand, tall and proud in his purpose. So certain of his destiny.

As she had once been some seven years past.

This younger, more civilised version of what she had been seemed bent on following the same path she had once travelled. But where she had succeeded in breaking these people with a minimum of death, Xena could tell that Stephicles would not be satisfied until every last person down to the youngest child paid for their defiant show of strength and pride. The extent of the suffering he had inflicted thus far sickened her to the depths of her soul and she would not allow it to continue. To accomplish that, however, she would have to subdue or kill him; whichever was in her power to prevent him from leaving the temple and rejoining his men. Lesser in number than the invading force and tired from the break-neck cross-country run, Taelere's attempt to take back the town would only succeed so long as Stephicles men were scattered and in disarray without leadership. Stephicles' presence, with the Spear in hand, would be more of a morale boost than they could afford.

So it fell to her. I won't let him win, she promised the people cowering behind the overturned pews and rubble. No matter what it takes. She was willing to make whatever sacrifice would be required, and she reminded herself of this as she waited for the warlord's next move.

She watched the way his knuckles whitened on the spear haft and the way his gaze sharpened with recognition. Stephicles roughly pulled his boot away from Kiran's throat, the militia captain completely forgotten in the face of this new and much more serious threat. Kiran coughed a moment and then fumbled to her feet, a look of seething hatred on her haggard face. Xena saw the minute twitches in her body and the way her hands clenched at her sides and knew that Kiran was seconds away from making a fatal mistake. "Get back with the others, Kiran," the warrior ordered her.

The captain's eyes glanced her way, and Xena recognised the tremendous changes wrought in the relatively short time she had been away. The hard-won confidence and inner strength fairly radiated from the young woman, and something as paltry as personal safety was not going to sway her. But, Xena figured, perhaps an appeal to duty would. "They still need you." Her voice was level, but direct, and she could see the reluctant understanding in Kiran's eyes. Giving Stephicles one last venomous look, Kiran began to retreat towards Mira's silent form, one backwards step at a time.

At Xena's appearance and Kiran's, retreat the warlord's men broke from the crowd with the intent of lending assistance, but Stephicles' threw out a hand. "No! She's mine. Keep watch on them." He pointed to the people lining one side of the chamber. "I'll need them later." Intelligent eyes turned her way. "But you... I was wondering if you'd turn up again."

"Just like a bad dinar," Xena quipped with a twirl of her blade. "Demicles sends his regards, by the way." The message was implicit, and she gave him a smile to underscore it.

Stephicles' eyes narrowed and he took a casual stance as he surveyed her from head to toe. "Must have been a tough fight. You look like Tartarus," he told her. "Slowing down in your old age?" He shook his tawny head as he tsked and began to slowly circle her, like a shark scenting prey. "It's just as well that Ares is looking for a new Chosen."

Xena gave a silent snort accompanied by a sceptical quirk of one brow as she watched him traverse the outer edge of the shaft of light, just out of reach. It was all she could do to not laugh at him outright, and she turned her head to look at Ares. You planned this confrontation all along, you heartless bastard. Something of her thoughts must have shown in her expression because the God of War gave her an unrepentant smile as he crossed his arms and reclined against a pillar to take in the show with evident enjoyment. She let the blade of her sword fall to rest on her shoulder and addressed the warlord with a casual arrogance of her own. "Don't get your hopes up."

Stephicles gave a harsh laugh and lifted the Spear in her direction. "Even without the Spear I am a skilled and formidable warrior. With it... with it I am invincible, and more than a match for the trash in Kozani. Once the other half is in my hands it will only be a matter of time before Greece is mine as well."

"Been there, done that," Xena drawled. "And without a pointy stick." Without taking her eyes of the glowering warlord, she turned her head slightly and raised her voice for Ares to hear her clearly. "Is he the best you could find?"

"He's better than you think, Xena," the God replied.

Stephicles slowed to a halt before her and began shedding his cloak. "I'm better than you," he said as he tossed the damp material aside and took a firmer grip on the Spear.

The calm and quiet conviction of his voice might have disconcerted one of lesser experience and skill, but Xena remained unmoved and flatly unimpressed. "Funny. I've been hearing that a lot lately." She watched Stephicles swish the tip of the Spear back and forth, the action reminding her of the agitated tail-lashings of a big cat.

"Unfortunately for you, it's true this time."

Xena noticed the subtle changes in his posture, the tensing of his muscles and the shift in weight to a lighter stance as he moved. The coming fight gave her a much-needed surge of adrenaline, but it could not entirely dispel the nagging sense of fatigue and pain that plagued her. Need a way to buy more time without tangling with him directly just yet. The answer was obvious and she couldn't help smiling a little. Let's have some fun first, why don't we? "Then you're the only one here who believes that," Xena told him derisively and followed his progress through the corners of her eyes as he passed behind her. "I doubt even Ares can get behind something that ridiculous."

"Ignore her," Ares called, seeing his protégé's face suffusing with dark anger. "This is your chance to make a name for yourself. Kill her in single combat and take her place at my side. With one stroke you'll gain a reputation for yourself and a following of countless mercenaries who will flock to your banner. Greece will be a fruit ripe for the plucking!"

Xena watched Stephicles swell with the thought of it; his confidence buoyed by Ares' grandiose urgings. No doubt already hearing the trumpets of destiny and their glorious call, she thought sarcastically and rolled her eyes. The sound of her sudden chuckle distracted Stephicles, deflating him somewhat. Xena didn't need to see his face to know that her sudden dismissal of him rankled as she turned fully to face the God of War. "Are you still plugging that old fruit analogy? I could swear you used that one when you recruited me."

Without waiting for an answer, she sheathed her sword, put her hands on her hips, and walked closer with a noticeable swagger in her stride. With pursed lips she gave her would-be successor the once-over and quirked a brow. "This is the one you want replacing me, Ares? It took him two months to do what took me a single night," she reminded them both in a mocking tone.

The warlord was silent, but she could see the fine lines moving along his jaw. More prodding was called for. "I destroyed your catapult. I torched a third of your army. Not quite the sweet smell of success you'd hoped for, I'm sure." With each comment she took a small step closer to him, her voice oozing contempt and disgust. "I mobilised this town. I escaped past your camp and rode to Kozani. I raised an army, returned and found a way back in. Again." She raised a hand and pointed. "Meanwhile it took you two months to knock down a door and bully an old woman into handing over an antiquated weapon that you seem to think is going to give you instant fame and power." She stopped a few feet away and looked him up and down again. "You're nothing but a pathetic, two-bit, wanna-be bad boy who doesn't have the brains, focus or discipline to be Ares' Chosen," Xena finished with a sneer. A feral little smile graced her mouth when she saw the tremor of rage shiver through his body. She watched the vein pulsing in his forehead with idle fascination and wondered how much more it would take to make it pop.

Stephicles visibly wrestled himself back under tenuous control, his eyes flicking over to where Ares stood, surreptitiously checking for a reaction to the Warrior Princess' synopsis of events. Though amused and intent on the proceedings, the God showed no other obvious indications of his feelings to her words. "The steps along the way are of no consequence," Stephicles declared. "The ends justify the means, and if I am successful, nothing else matters. And here." He raised the Spear up. "This is the proof of my success!"

Xena crossed her arms and tapped a fingertip against her lips a moment. "Interesting choice of words. The 'ends justifying the means' is exactly what this is all about."

"What?" the warlord questioned her, his brows drawing together in confusion.

Ares suddenly pushed away from the pillar, the expression of amusement leaving his face as he focused all his attention on Xena.

Get ready for it, she braced herself. "Ares isn't the least bit interested in having you for his Chosen."

"You lie," Stephicles hissed.

"Oh yeah? That's not the way I heard it from him in Kozani. Here's the deal; if I accepted his promise of support and a timely return to Neapolis, then I'd return to him once we'd killed you." Xena glanced back at Ares and shook her head. "And damn me if I'm not going to do it, too." She adjusted a bracer and heaved a sigh. "Sorry to crush your dreams of fame and fortune, kid, but a little pissant thug like you isn't going to be enough to stop me."

Stephicles, stunned and disbelieving of the revelation, stared at the God of War. "She lies," he said, his voice asking for some kind of confirmation. Ares stared at him, silent and impassive. "Tell me she lies!" he demanded, his knuckles white on the Spear.

"It's the truth," Ares admitted without hesitation. "But, if you fight her and win... I'll make you the greatest warrior that history has ever known."

Emotions shifted across his face, and he blanched as the realisation of the God's words struck him. "You never believed I could do this, did you? I've been played for a fool," the warlord breathed, the shock quickly transformed into fury. "You've betrayed me!"

"Don't be ridiculous!" Ares waved the accusation off. "It was a test! To see if you were worthy of my notice. Xena is your final obstacle to be the best. 'Beat the best to be the best!' Defeat her and nothing will stand in your way!"

A new and frenetic light gleamed in Stephicles eyes when he slowly turned his head and met Xena's gaze. The strength of his anger and desire for victory vied for dominance on his face. "I'm gonna rip your bloody head off and decorate the gate with it." For once his usual eloquence was gone, replaced by a guttural tone of menace.

"Uh huh." She saw that he could barely keep from lunging at her, and Xena knew there would be no better moment than now to pick a fight whilst he was on the verge of losing total control. Time to finish this, she decided. The warrior gave a full, rich laugh, the sounds of which carried through the room. "You have to come and take it first, little man." She waved him onwards with both hands. "C'mon."

Xena barely had time to slide out of the way as he launched himself at her, the Spear whipping across the space where her throat had been but a moment before. Stephicles' attack was fierce and quick leaving her no time to recover and draw her blade. Her eyes flickered between him and the god-forged weapon, staying just ahead of the warlord's attacks by the slimmest of seconds. He was good, Xena conceded. Faster than he looked, in fact, and skilled enough that he managed to keep her back without giving her much of an opportunity to get a grip on the damn weapon. I need space and fast, Xena seethed, furious at the injuries that limited her movement. She back-pedalled suddenly and flipped backward to the gasps of awe from the watching crowd of people, adding her own hissed response as her body protested the movement.

The landing placed her between two of the pillars and narrowed the approach of Stephicles' on-coming charge. With the few added seconds, Xena ripped her sword loose in time to bring the blade around in a humming arc to deflect the warlord's next strike. A flash of sparks erupted on contact and Xena felt the blade turn in her hand as the god-forged blade cut a notch in her weapon and send a shiver of misgiving up her spine. The realisation hit her like ice water; one wrong move and the Spear would cut through her sword like butter. And that meant a total change in tactics was called for.

Xena went on the offensive and threw herself forward in a twisting flip over Stephicles' head, barely evading the upward thrust of the Spear point as the warlord stabbed the air over his head. She landed and immediately launched a roundhouse kick that sent Stephicles face first into a stone pillar. Xena wasted no time in following up her counterattack and brought her sword around in a tight arc with both hands, her face an expression of tight focus, fully intending to end this conflict as quickly as possible. The blade of her sword banged against the pillar with numbing force just as Stephicles dropped to one knee, narrowly avoiding having his head removed. With a sudden turn, he balled his right hand into a fist and slammed it hard into her midsection.

She felt the air explode out of her lungs a moment before the bottom of the shaft smashed against her face in a burst of sparkling light. Hot moisture dripped down her face as she stumbled back, and Xena lifted a hand to feel at the cut in her cheek. She breathed hard and regarded the blood on her fingertips before raising a blistering glare at her opponent.

"First blood!" Stephicles crowed triumphantly as he stalked towards her. "Don't bother begging for mercy, Xena."

"Wouldn't dream of it," she retorted, twirled her blade once and then waited. The sight of her blood seemed to only heighten his determination to win out and she found herself suddenly on the defensive again, fighting to keep the edge of the Spear from cutting through her weapon and, more importantly, herself. The burn of her muscles as she moved and evaded was becoming hard to ignore, and the warrior knew she needed to end this soon before Stephicles ended it for her.

Xena lashed out, carving a chunk of wood from the Spear shaft, and angled the blade just so to slice an identical cut across Stephicles' cheek to match her own. The warrior twitched her eyebrows at him and gave a sassy smile as payback even as she leaned back to avoid the sweep of the Spearhead. She jack-knifed into a flip over the next swipe targeted at her knees and brought the long sword over her head with speed to block the edge of the Spear as Stephicles worked both ends of the weapon against her. The force of the blow smashed the edge of her sword through the leather armour covering one shoulder blade, and she grimaced at the sting as she spun around to face her opponent. Not in time though, the end of the Spear slammed into her ribs and Xena staggered a couple of steps as pain exploded down her side and into already injured muscles of her back.

"You're mine!" Stephicles shouted as he leapt after her and pressed his advantage. The end of the Spear found its target again, striking powerfully across the shoulders and driving her to her knees.

With a grunt, Xena rolled out of reach and into a crouch, the searing pain locked behind an expression of determined fury. Out of the corner of her eye she could see the press of Stephicles' men closing in, and the terrified crowding of the people looking to her for deliverance. The warlord, though breathing harder now, still looked strong as he gripped the Spear firmly and shared a sharp, searching stare with her as she quickly evaluated her dwindling options. As good as he appeared to be, Xena refused to believe he was that good. No, the Spear had to have something to do with the strength, speed and agility she was seeing. If I can get it away from him I've got a chance. If not... "You're going to have to try harder than that!" Xena's war cry echoed through the room as she bounded to her feet and came at him.

The fury of her attack was a tattoo of sound as her blade rattled off the Spear point and cut splinters off the shaft. Xena reached deeper, pushed harder, fighting to numb his hands and knock the weapon from his grasp. They traded blows back and forth, drawing blood in hairline nicks and cuts, the drops liberally dotting the hard stone floor as they ranged back and forth across the open space before the altar in their violent dance. With a feint, she broke through his defences and punched him solidly in the face and sent him staggering backwards. The sting across her knuckles was satisfying, and she smiled at him as her body recognised her moment. Every fight had one, that pivotal moment when the battle hung in the balance, and the outcome was decided. It might leave her open, but he was off balance, and she wouldn't get a better shot at taking him out. Xena planted her foot, spun, and swung her heel around with wicked force. She smiled; it was almost over. She watched his eyes widen in realisation and hungered for the feel of her boot shattering every bone in the hand holding the Spear.

It never happened.

Almost too quick to follow, Stephicles recovered his balance, caught her foot, and twisted it sharply causing the muscles to scream their objections to the unnatural angle. Xena choked off a sound of agony and snarled at him as she struggled to fight back and stay upright at the same time. Even as vulnerable as she was, Xena knew Stephicles had left himself just as open. His death meant hers as well, but she figured the world was better off with the two of them gone. Taelere would see to it. And he would see to Gabrielle as well. Forgive me... She gritted her teeth at the thought, her palm tightening on the well-worn grip of the hilt. The warrior made a cross-body swing for his face, away from the hand holding the Spear and therefore harder to block.

The temple doors crashed inwards against the stone walls, and Xena's concentration broke as the vision of a strawberry-blond woman wielding a staff burst into the room. Blue eyes grew round in shock and her mind reeled with the impossibility of it. Gabrielle was two days away, injured, feverish and protected by the thick walls surrounding Kozani. The bard was not staring back her with hot green eyes and covered in filth and soot. Surely not. Xena blinked, but the vision remained and the warrior felt her chest tighten with a surge of unexpected joy at seeing Gabrielle again. Dread usurped it immediately, however; she had not meant for the bard to be here, to watch her die, to suffer from Stephicles' wrath herself.

What are you doing her- The force that collided with her sword and sent it flying from her grasp allowed her no time to reflect on the bard's sudden appearance as Stephicles released her foot and let her lurch backwards. The moment of distraction had been her undoing, and she saw it in his eyes as Stephicles' laughter filled her ears. Xena saw him coming and moved to avoid his strike, but her back, already strained beyond normal limits, gave out before allowing her to shift completely out of its deadly path. The Spear point pierced her side and her fist gripped the bladed head even as she fell to her knees. It slicked her palm with blood where it cut deeply into her hand, but she barely felt it. It didn't hurt, she was surprised to note, not until he turned the Spear in his hands inspiring a white-hot blaze of pain that announced itself with breath-stealing force.

"Unh..." she quietly grunted, her jaw hanging slack as she stared disbelievingly into his dark eyes. "...unh..." The consequences of giving up were all too clear in her mind to allow her to do it, but her limbs would not obey her demands beyond a weak, trembling quiver.

"It's time," Stephicles panted with savage delight when he saw that she could barely stay upright.

Xena knelt before him, transfixed on the end of the weapon, watching dazedly as Stephicles prepared to take her life.

 

* * *

 

Gabrielle looked on in terror as the split second surprise of her arrival gave Stephicles the space he needed to deflect Xena's swing and take advantage of the warrior's completely shattered focus. She had seen the shock and horror on her friend's face at seeing her again, the soundless question forming on Xena's lips just before the warlord's weapon buried itself in her body.

"NO!" Gabrielle shrieked, and gasped as the warlord followed up his attack with a second thrust inwards that dropped Xena to her knees in the pool of weak light falling from the broken roof overhead. The leathers were quickly soaked through, and in moments Gabrielle could see that the warrior's thigh was awash in runnels of blood. Stephicles' form was silhouetted in the light from above as he took a step closer to loom over Xena. The warrior's slitted blue eyes were the only spot of colour in the otherwise ashen features.

Shattered eyes of blue...

The images from Gabrielle's fevered dream took on greater depth as the urgency gripping her so strongly all this time was brought into focus. Xena needed her. And that was enough. Gabrielle sprinted forward, determined to intercept Stephicles before he could deliver his coup de grâce. From the corner of her eye, the bard could see the warlord's troops take notice of her, but she didn't dare let them slow her down.

"Xena!" She had to let the warrior know she was coming. One of the soldiers stepped in front of her, his sword already in motion, but she ran low, took the man's feet out from under him and kept on moving. Gabrielle saw Xena's expression of agony as she struggled to rise and fight back. I'm coming, Gabrielle told her friend silently. The warrior was dazed and hurt, and nothing nothing was going to keep her from her friend's side.

 

* * *

 

Kiran, seeing Xena's friend rush the warlord, broke from Mira's side and called out to the militia on the other side of the room. "Get 'em!" Breaking into a staggering run, she raced across the temple floor and threw herself onto one of the mercenaries, pummelling him with her bare fists. Two more citizens joined her and together they grappled over his sword until she managed to bring the flat of her palm up and into the soldier's nose with an audible crunch. Hot blood sprayed her and she hissed in disgust even as she plucked the sword from the distressed man's fingers while he attempted to stem the flow from his now misshapen nose.

Chaos had ensued on her side of the room with people running every which way and fights breaking out as her militia fell on the soldiers with abandon. Even the braver of the townsfolk were lending assistance.

Kiran plunged into the throng, her eyes flitting from person to person in search of a particular face. "Laera!" she shouted above the noise. Gods, let her be safe! In the confusion and danger in the room it was hard to make sense of anything. But suddenly the elderly councillor was there, her back to Kiran, held within the supportive arms of a handful of women. "Laera!" she called out. It had been years and years since her mother's death, but this need to see the councillor, to see her well and safe, was the closest she had ever come to feeling that same connection as she had as a child. The older woman turned, and the slate grey eyes lit up in a way that warmed Kiran to the darkest corners of her battle-weary heart and brought an answering smile to her lips.

Arms dry and withered with age were still strong enough to clasp her tight and a dry, cool cheek pressed against her own with fervent concern and happiness. "Kiran, thank the gods you're alive!"

"You too," Kiran replied. "Mira's hurt. Help her while we get rid of the scum." She nodded towards the half dozen marauders now fighting for their lives as the Neapolitan militia with the aid of their townsfolk fell on the enemy.

"Be careful," Laera said brusquely, suddenly all business as she gestured to a couple of the women.

Kiran was already past her, the mantle of frustrated helplessness falling away as she adjusted the sword in her grip and joined the attack. So long as reinforcements didn't show up, the interference would buy Xena's friend a little more time.

 

* * *

Alerted by the shout from behind him, Stephicles glanced back and saw the slender woman, staff in hand, bearing down on him with an expression of determined wrath burning in her eyes. There was no hesitation in her stride, no sign of slowing, and the warlord knew that whatever he had at first thought of Xena's play toy, he could not ignore the danger she represented as she raced towards him. The weak light outlined the very real and very obvious flow of muscle in her arms and torso as she raised her staff to attack him, but he would make short work of her. The Spear would see to that.

He turned slightly and yanked at the weapon, indifferent to the damage it might cause to the infamous Warrior Princess. Stephicles heard the pain-filled sound behind him as he pulled, but it would not come free. He yanked harder thinking to unstick it from her ribs, his attention completely diverted by the oncoming threat. To his frustration and growing alarm the weapon remained lodged. Stephicles turned, fully intending to brace a foot against the woman if necessary, only to discover a set of feral eyes and a maniacal smile looking back at him. He tugged again and could only watch in horrified amazement as Xena held the head and shaft of the weapon in a vise-like grip, imprisoning the Spear tip within her own body. The insanity of her action was beyond his comprehension, and he could only stare at her in disbelief.

"It's time," she said for him alone, purposefully repeating his words back to him in a mocking whisper. He yanked again, and Xena cried out in pain as she ripped the Spear point free of herself with both hands, aiding him in his effort. Stephicles abruptly found himself reeling and off balance, a victim of his own strength. Unable to recover in time, the girl's staff slammed against his head before his could erect a defence and light exploded before his eyes as he staggered beneath the force of it.

Though stunned, he managed to respond on instinct, turning the Spear sideways to parry the vicious sideways swing towards his ribs. At the moment of connection an explosion of light sprayed across the room, momentarily blinding all within. A ringing chime vibrated through his hands, and when Stephicles could see again, he became aware of the bright golden glow surrounding the small woman's staff. A glow that outshone even his own.

"You've got it!" Stephicles breathed, staring at the staff in her hands. After weeks of fighting tooth and nail to gain access to one half, here, suddenly, the second half practically fell into his grasp. The luck of the gods was with him.

The hunger in his face added an unsettling element of the disturbed to his eyes, and the Spear's light cast hollow shadows in his face, granting it the semblance of a leering death's head with glittering dark eyes. "Give it to me!" he shouted.

He was frightening, but she didn't turn a hair. Green eyes slid past him to where Xena struggled to rise, the pain of her wound doubling her over on the cold, stone floor. Narrowed blue eyes appeared through the matted strands of dark hair and Gabrielle could feel how badly Xena wanted needed to get up and help her, to continue the fight. She wanted to go to her. Badly. But Stephicles was looming over her, standing between her and her friend. His broad shoulders and muscular arms dwarfed her more diminutive stature. Like that's going to matter, she decided recklessly.

"Give it to me!" the warlord shouted again and held out an impatient hand.

It came down to this moment. Xena had fought so hard to protect them from experiencing anything like the cruelty they had known under her. Had even been willing to give her life to do so. Make whatever sacrifice was necessary.  But with Xena wounded and unable to do it, Gabrielle took a tighter grip on the Spear and shouldered the responsibility of their defence herself. For these people. For the Greater Good. And most especially, for a dark and battered soul that would never believe itself worthy of forgiveness.

Her answer was a sweeping combination of blows, knees, ribs, shoulder, that he barely deflected in time. "Give it to me and I might only break your legs, wench!"

The blonde woman danced backwards and towards the pillars behind her. "Go to Tartarus, you centaur-sucking, morphoditious troglodyte!" Each word was spoken in a clear, incisive tone and her voice fairly dripped with contempt. "You fatuous, incompetent, uninspiring fop! If you can't even beat me, it's no wonder you haven't taken Neapolis yet."

The words struck their mark with unerring accuracy and Stephicles lunged at her with a temper flowing wildly out of control. For this moment the desire to kill the girl overshadowed his obsession to gain the Spear, and it showed in the force behind the blow meant to remove her head from her shoulders. Impossibly, she ducked beneath it, allowing the tip to slam against the marble pillar. Numbing vibrations reverberated up his arms and for a moment he could only watch as flakes of marble rained down on her head and shoulders. The next blow connected with his ankle, a hard stinging hit that made him shift off balance. He grunted in angry surprise and answered faster than she had anticipated. The tip of the Spear opened a shallow, burning cut across her collarbone forcing a hiss of pain from her, but she stepped forward into his next attack to trade a series of blows punctuated in flashes of light as she forced him to fight more staff-style to avoid her bruising, double-ended strokes.

He used every trick he could think of, every skill he had learned and still she managed to evade him. Experienced enough to recognise the truth of it, he could see that no matter what he did, the girl continued to inexplicably gain minute advantages. Enough of this, Stephicles decided, tired and frustrated. The warlord backed off, smiled, and hurried over to where Xena was only now managing to stand. He backhanded her across the face, and a wave of excited satisfaction swelled through him when she folded and fell to her hands and knees. Standing over her, he pressed the Spear point against her back and looked up at the suddenly panicked-stricken girl. "Give me the Spear," he ordered her. "Drop it and kick it over here, or I'll run her through."

His opponent stopped dead in her tracks, and he watched her eyes flicker between him and the slow moving creature at his feet. Pitiful, he thought contemptuously.

"Don't do it," she begged him.

"Don't do it? Don't do it?!" Stephicles reached down and wrapped his fist in the thick, dark hair and pulled Xena forcibly to her feet. "I'll do anything I like. Now give it to me!" He pressed the Spear up under the warrior's chin, pricking the sensitive flesh.

He sensed some silent communication between the two women and remained wary until the girl dropped the Spear where it clattered loudly against the cold stone. The quickened rise and fall of her chest revealed her growing fear and tension, and he could feel his own rising to match. The dewy gleam of perspiration evident on her face was enough to make him confident again, however, and he could barely concentrate on anything but the sight of the gleaming artefact. "Kick it over here."

She kicked it hard, and the seasoned wood rolled across the stone, its passage echoing hollowly as it traversed the distance. Numerous eyes rested on the weapon, for the fate of many rested on where it would stop. It gradually slowed to a halt and, as if undecided on its master, the Spear rocked back and forth between the two combatants, and finally lay still.

The Spear of Mercy was beautiful in his eyes, representing all he had striven to gain. Barely breathing, he tucked his own Spear beneath his arm and reached down to grasp it. He would take his destiny in hand and be delivered of all Ares had promised him. His strong fingers fell just short of the haft when suddenly Xena began to struggle. Stephicles straightened abruptly and yanked her head back. And elbow came up out of nowhere and caught him squarely in the face making his eyes water horribly, but he managed to lash out in blind retaliation. Solid contact told him he had made a hit and the resulting sound of a body collapsing brought a grin to his face. He blinked away the tears and a wisp of movement out of the corner of his eye was all the warning he had. Suddenly the girl was upon him and Stephicles had never even heard her final approach. Not a sound. Not a breath. The Spear haft he thought so safely and innocently lying at his feet slammed against his head with stunning force and a confused swirl of sound and light overwhelmed his senses...

The mocking laughter of a dark God... a warrior's self-satisfied smile... the regretful triumph in sensitive green eyes, all framed in a bright, golden glow.

Something struck him again, and his world went dark.

 

* * *

A thunderous cheer went up the moment Stephicles crumpled to the ground, breaking the townspeople's enthralled silence. It was so spontaneous and uplifting that Kiran found herself thrusting her sword into the air and giving a wild, victorious yell. Hands clapped her on the shoulder and people, now familiar and cherished, hugged her with relieved abandon.

Kiran was still so stunned by the sudden outcome that she felt nearly light-headed. A myriad of emotions made her feel breathless and spent, and tears prickled her eyes. Kiran wanted to laugh and cry at the same time, it was so intense. The smile that stretched across her face was answered in the numerous smiles that grew in response around her. It's over, she thought, almost disbelievingly, to herself. A sudden thought occurred to her Almost over, she amended having nearly forgotten about the army roving through the town outside these walls. They would have to find a way to deal with that in very short order.

A hand on her shoulder distracted her from her thoughts and Kiran turned around to find an older woman gesturing over to the other side of the chamber. The noise was loud, but she thought she could just make out the name "Laera" and promptly nodded to show that she understood.

"Luke!" she shouted to one of the militia. The man came to her side and she immediately pressed her sword into his hand before leaned in close to speak in his ear. "Get their men tied up and prepare a guard for Stephicles. If they know we've taken him, they'll try to get him back."

"Will do, captain," he replied and took off to gather their militia.

That done, Kiran wended her way through the crowd to get to Laera's side, wondering all the while if Mira was still alive.

 

* * *

 

Gabrielle stood over the body of the fallen warlord, barely even hearing the cheers as she watched him with wary caution for any signs of movement. The Spear haft pulsed brightly in her hands and she breathed as if air were in short commodity, taking deep and gasping lungfuls. Somehow, somehow, she had managed to soften her step and avoid breathing those last several feet. Words, seemingly from a lifetime ago, surfaced in her mind...

"You said I could guard your back. And how did you know it was me? What did I do wrong this time?"

"You breathed," Xena had told her before looking back towards the town.

Not this time. A growing lump on the back of his skull the size of a hen's egg attested to that. He breathed, however, and for now that was good enough for her though she hoped he woke with a headache bad enough to drop a giant.

Seeing that he wasn't going anywhere, Gabrielle promptly forgot him and dashed across the room to grab Stephicles' abandoned cloak before rushing to kneel at Xena's side. "Xena?" Blood was pooling beneath the warrior who lay curled on her side. Gabrielle tore a ragged strip from the warlord's cloak and then gently turned Xena on her back.

"Xena, can you hear me?" The dark, matted hair fell away from a face drained of colour and the lack of response terrified the bard. "C'mon, now." Her fingers shook as she reached down to retrieve Xena's boot dagger. "Need to use this a minutes, ok?" Gabrielle, unsure if Xena could hear her, began a one-sided conversation, still mindful of just how dangerous the warrior could be... awake, asleep, or unconscious; it didn't seem to matter. "I'm just going to widen the hole, so don't worry, alright? You're safe." The razor sharp dagger made short work of the leather and she quickly set the blade aside to take up the strip of cloth and press it hard against the wound.

Xena groaned and shifted in protest, but Gabrielle maintained the pressure against her side. "I know it hurts," she commiserated. "C'mon, Xena, wake up. Talk to me." The bard kept one hand against the wound and reached out to lay a palm against the cool skin of the warrior's cheek, alarmed at the chill, marble-like appearance of Xena's face. She fought to keep the tears at bay, but her fears crowded out any rational thought beyond the need to keep this woman alive. "Stay with me," she begged her brokenly. Please...don't give up. Her hand cupped the cool skin of Xena's cheek, lending it warmth. "Please..." A hot tear trickled down her face and darkened the leather armour where it fell.

There was a stirring. The faintest flutter of dark eyelashes. And then a tickle of breath that caressed the sensitive skin of her wrist when the warrior's head lolled toward her. "Xena," she called again and waited, hardly daring to move. Had she imagined it? But, no... there. A deeper breath. And suddenly the dark lashes blinked once and lifted, and the dazed bewilderment in those blue eyes receded to be slowly replaced with tender recognition.

"Gabrielle?" The warrior's voice was a low, husky murmur, and Gabrielle gave a choked sound of profound relief upon hearing it. Xena's hand lifted to touch her and the bard grasped the larger hand in her own, surprised at her strength when Xena pulled the bard down across her dirty, blood-splattered body and enfolded her in a tight embrace. "Gabrielle." A soft, shuddering sigh of relief and welcome vibrated between them.

It felt so good to touch her, to see her again despite her injuries that Gabrielle gave in to the tears that stung her eyes. The close, strong hug and the feel of Xena's hand gently cupping the back of her head belied the extent of the pain she knew the warrior must be in, but she burrowed closer and laughed quietly through her tears. Dry lips brushed her temple lightly, lingered, and touched her again. "Gabrielle." Her name, whispered softly in her ear, made her feel weak and breathless with emotion. It was spoken with a desperate joy, like a treasure feared forever lost, unexpectedly found and mercifully restored. It warmed her, filled her to the depths of her soul, and Gabrielle knew she was where she needed to be. Her heart knew of no place better than this.

Part 13
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