The bard was more grateful than Xena could know for the gloves. The rope, slippery from the rain, would have been almost impossible for her to climb otherwise. As it was, her breath whistled painfully through her teeth. She moved as quickly as she could, glad that the last year or so had toughened and strengthened her small body. She kept one eye on the wall, all too aware that a single bowshot could end this for her.
Her staff, bumping reassuringly against her back, would be useless until she could regain her footing on solid ground. The ground. The ground... oh, gods. Her fear of heights suddenly reasserted itself, and she had to stop for a second to swallow the rising bile of nausea. The strain on her arms was beginning to tell, and she felt the tremors begin in her tired muscles.
She grunted with the effort as she raised herself the last few feet and anxiously pulled herself over the wall. She glanced around and saw the sprawled body of a guard. Hoping her friend hadn't been forced to kill him, she grabbed the other rope and began shimmying down its length until solid ground was beneath her feet once more. A hand covered her mouth and another yanked her back into the cover of darkness. She let out a muffled squawk until she realised the figure holding her tight was Xena.
"Quiet." She loosed the bard. "Get your staff ready. We'll take out the first one down, and then let the others come. Call for help when they're all here. We want the militia to see that we're on their side."
Nodding her understanding, Gabrielle pulled the staff from across her back and, like Xena, pushed back the edges of her cloak, allowing for greater freedom of movement. In moments, the rope hanging before them began to jig and sway with the movements of one of the men's downward motion. Jason dropped lightly to the ground in a crouch, facing the courtyard. A swift blow with the hilt of Xena's sword to the head rendered him prone on the ground and Xena pulled him back until he lay against the wall.
"We'll wait for the others," Xena whispered. Again they waited, and Brotius joined them. He pulled a crossbow from his belt and swiftly loaded it.
"Where's Jason?" he hissed.
"Sent him to the other side to check on the opening mechanism," she responded.
The soldier flicked dark, wet hair from his eyes, nodded, and then took up a watchful position closer to the gate. The other two joined them moments later, and Xena's eyes slid right to see that Gabrielle was already waiting for her signal. With the smallest nod from the warrior, Gabrielle let out a piercing shriek and starting calling for the guard. The last two men came down the rope and swung around, their eyes wide in shock.
"You've betrayed us, you bitch!" Ashol caught on immediately and pulled a knife free from his belt. Xena kicked the weapon from his hand, closing with him immediately. The tight quarters made the use of his crossbow impossible as he pulled yet another knife and tried to take out the whirlwind she-devil that had thrown herself at him.
Gabrielle, still yelling at the top of her lungs, lunged at Cyr even as he was fumbling for his weapon, still trying to recover from surprise. She whipped one end through the air, clobbered his right wrist, and heard a satisfying crack on contact. He cried out as the crossbow dropped from his hands and clattered away. With his other hand he pulled free a knife and thrust it at her. He knew his disadvantage; a knife was no match for a staff. Unless it was thrown. He hustled back a few paces and let the weapon fly.
Gabrielle ducked, narrowly avoiding the full, lethal impact of the blade, but its well-honed edge sliced straight through the cloak and tunic and cut into her shoulder. She grunted aloud with the pain, but moved with it, adrenaline allowing her to push forward to strike again before he could come at her. A quick thrust with the end of the staff stole his breath from him. And anger behind her next swing gave her added strength. The resulting crunch informed Gabrielle she'd done serious damage as the other man screamed, clutching at a now useless right arm. The bard gave a grunt of effort as she reversed her stroke, and felt the impact quiver up her arms as she connected with his head, laying him out cold. She spun around looking for Brotius.
The sounds of battle drew the desired audience, and within moments militiamen streamed into the courtyard. Weapons were drawn and bows were pointed in their direction as they pulled up, watching the fight for a moment, unsure of exactly what was happening.
"There's another one loose near the gate!" Gabrielle shouted, as her eyes raked the shadows near the door.
"Aiyiyiyiyiyiyiyi," Xena yelled as she knocked the knives from the air, gave a kick to her opponent's chest, and then backed up as he drew a sword. Their weapons clashed briefly and Xena delivered a backhand to his face, stunning him. The extra moment allowed her to bring a booted foot under his chin, throwing him roughly onto his back.
"Xena, Brotius is still out there." Gabrielle came to her, her breath coming in harsh, painful pants, each exhalation showing in the cold, wet air.
Xena picked up Ashol's limp body and tossed it in the direction of the militia. "We've come to help," she announced. "There's another of Stephicles' men loose though; he's got a crossbow and knives, so watch yourselves."
The militia spread out, their attention fixed and searching. All the shadows seemed threatening now with the would-be assassin hidden effectively from view. Hard breathing and the fall of rain muffled any other sounds as the soldiers in the courtyard moved slowly towards the walls. Xena's eyes flitted from place to place, her efforts to pick out the faintest sound with her keen sense of hearing revealing nothing. The fine hairs at the back of her neck stiffened and she put her hand out to Gabrielle to pull her back and out of harm's way when suddenly she heard it...
The sudden whine of a bolt release met her ear and time slowed for her, showing in perfect and frightening clarity the path of the projectile as it screamed towards its target. She lunged forward, reaching past the bard, her hand outstretched. The wood felt hot beneath her fingers as they closed over the shaft. Xena willed the muscles to clench and hold, stopping it in mid-flight.
Gabrielle gasped; the bolt had been aimed at her chest.
Dropping the shaft, Xena ripped her weapon from its hook and flung the chakram with unstoppable force. The disc hummed as it cut through the rain and imbedded itself in the figure half hiding against the far wall. Brotius fell and did not move again.
Less than ten minutes, Xena nodded to herself. Not too shabby.
Gabrielle's knees trembled a little with reaction, and she wished she could pull the bandage free and just lie down somewhere. She shook her head, trying to clear away the pain as her wounded shoulder began to throb deeply. A hand on her arm refocused her attention.
"Gabrielle? Are you alright?"
One of the militiamen stepped forward, brandishing his sword. "You two stay where you are. I don't know what's going on here, but you're coming with me for questioning."
"First, man the wall and double your guard. Stephicles is planning to take the city tonight. When he finds out that I'm not opening the gate, he might try to storm the walls. Other groups were sent in as cover for us. You might also want to check to make sure they've been contained."
"How do we know you're telling the truth?" the guard demanded.
"Can you risk my being right?" Xena countered.
With brisk orders the guard dispersed his men to the wall, and sent messages that more were to be brought on duty to join them. He gestured to Xena and Gabrielle, and four guards surrounded them, their weapons at the ready.
"Hand over your weapons," the guard ordered. Grudgingly they did so, and after a brief discussion, her chakram was retrieved and added to the pile. "This way."
"Where are you taking us?" Gabrielle asked.
"You will be detained and questioned. Now shut up."
"We came here trying to help you," said Xena. "You're all in serious danger. The catapults are finished and he's ready to use them."
The guard turned to stare at her, looking a little uncertain.
"Take us to your captain, or to the council, but take us to someone who can listen and do something," Xena demanded.
"Please," Gabrielle added. She swayed a little, wishing for her staff to lean on. Familiar hands supported her though as the guard turned to his fellows and consulted with them quickly.
"Where are you hurt?" Xena asked while the guards conferred.
"Left shoulder. And I need to take the bandage off for a while."
Unarmed and unwilling to reveal the presence of her breast dagger, Xena used her bare hands to rip a strip of material away from the bottom of her cloak and wadded it to form a compress against the wound. "I can't see it too well in this light, but I think it might need stitches."
"Oh, goody," Gabrielle muttered tiredly. "Nice catch by the way. Thanks."
"You're welcome. You wouldn't be worth as much in resale with holes in your hide."
The bard glanced up and saw the forced grin. "Remember what I told you about enjoying this too much."
The guard broke in. "I don't want it to be my head if you're telling the truth and it all goes to smash. Come with us; we'll take you to Council member Laera."
"Good thinking," Xena agreed and helped Gabrielle along behind him. At least the easy part is out of the way now, Xena thought as they moved deeper into the town, but she knew the night was far from over.
They were taken with haste through the winding streets and directly to the town hall. The cessation of the constant fall of bone-numbing rain was a relief, and Gabrielle threw back the edges of her wet cloak, taking comfort in the comparative warmth of the building. Though outwardly calm, the bard could see how Xena's eyes were never still, continuously moving to take in the details as they passed through the corridor.
The cramped hallway gave way suddenly to a large chamber which, by her estimate, might hold a hundred people or more. From her vantage point behind the lead guard, Gabrielle could see rows of benches leading up to a hollow, circular table, presumably where the council sat in session. Wall sconces cast weak light on the room, and it was with some effort that she made out the grand tapestries that seemed to have been hung with deliberate precision along the stone walls. Hades... Aphrodite... Hera... Demeter... Artemis...She read them off to herself as they passed by the detailed works of art. As they entered further into the room, Gabrielle could see another tapestry hung on the wall at the head of the room just beyond the council table. Displayed prominently for all to see was a depiction of Athena, a great spear in hand, her thread-rendered face staring with regal dignity over the length of the room.
That must be the Spear that Xena was talking about. Wish I knew more of what's going on. Her eyes flicked over to the woman pacing along by her side. Like she'd ever tell me all the details. Just for once, I'd like to be one up on her when it comes to planning these things. "Tartarus would freeze first," she muttered under her breath.
"What?" Xena's voice came to her on the barest of whispers.
"Nothing," she answered, and was quickly annoyed to see the eye-roll the warrior gave. Her curiosity, though weary, soon overrode her irritation and she continued her visual exploration of the room as the group came to a halt next to the council table. In the flickering torchlight, she could see the edges of a map of the city laid out in colourful mosaic tiles in the floor. Cleverly carved stone pieces representing men and horses had been set on its surface to resemble the layout of Stephicles forces. The ins and outs of siege warfare were still a mystery, but Gabrielle felt she was beginning to grasp some sense of it now. But she still didn't know nearly as much as she wanted to. I hate not knowing...it's so frustrating not being able to help. Though, stick around with Xena long enough, and who knows what all I'll pick up? A hand on her arm broke her reverie.
"Sit down," Xena ordered her.
"You're as white as a sheet. Now sit down." The warrior pressed her back until the edge of a bench met the backs of her knees. "Put pressure on that, or it'll never stop bleeding," she reminded Gabrielle and held the bard's hand against the makeshift compress until the younger woman complied.
Gabrielle sank down onto the wooden surface, suddenly wishing that she could simply lay down and close her eyes for a long while. Everything felt achy and tired, and the cut in her shoulder was beginning to seep through the bandage. She lifted the edge of the cloth and took a peek. In the wavering light she could see the gapping cut, its edges pulled wide by the natural tension of the skin, causing it to bleed freely. Ick, she grimaced and felt a little squeamish. Oh yuck, it does need stitches. Doesn't it just figure? Gods, I hope this doesn't take too long. She tried to distract herself by watching the others in the room, noting the wary suspicion of the guards, and Xena's complete disregard of them as the warrior's eyes glanced around the room.
* * *
Pushing aside her concern for her friend for the moment, Xena let her eyes devour the map on the floor, noting that the positions of Stephicles' army had been laid out with fair accuracy. The city fortifications were more her concern now, however. Too many holes to exploit, Xena decided, giving consideration to all the tactics she'd throw against the town if the situation were reversed. Which it had been once upon a time, she remembered. Feelings of guilt and remorse niggled at her, but she hid those, along with her impatience as she examined the set up, gauging it for strengths and weaknesses against the intelligence she had gathered while in Stephicles' camp. The sound of footsteps rang hollowly in the room making Xena look up. Two woman, one young, the other elderly, approached quickly, a second guard escort flanking them.
"I understand you wanted to see me?" The older woman said, the light revealing a kind and wizened face framed by greying hair. But, as her gaze fell on the warrior, her slate coloured eyes hardened to the same flinty expression that Xena remembered. Oh, boy, the warrior steeled herself seeing the welcoming look turn hostile at the sight of her.
Laera awaited a response as she stood behind a protective barrier of more than a dozen soldiers. The younger woman folded her hands together and waited silently behind her, gazing at the warrior and bard with evident curiosity.
"Yes," Xena responded as she walked within a few feet of the guards, her hands resting easily on her hips. "My friend and I managed to convince Stephicles that we're working for him in order to get in to see you. We're here to help you break the siege."
There was a long pause while grey eyes looked the warrior up and down before finally replying. "You want me to believe that you're actually here to help us?" The older woman gazed at her sceptically. "And, just what makes you think that Neapolis has forgotten you, Xena, that we would believe such an unlikely tale?"
The warrior felt her heart sink, knowing that she should have expected this. How could she not after the damage she had inflicted on these people? Redemption isn't supposed to be easy, she reminded herself as she squared her shoulders to accept the blame Laera laid at her feet.
"Do you know how many people starved because of your cold-blooded theft that winter? How much suffering and grief was ours to know because of you and your army? Do you know how many, young and old, died as a result of your heartless inhumanity?"
Gabrielle watched as the small woman, who looked like the quintessential grandmother, lashed at Xena with unrestrained fury. The warrior, who overshadowed the councillor by a good head and shoulders, raised her head, the muscles of her jaw working while she stood silent beneath the growing onslaught from the frail and slight elder before her.
Xena held the woman's gaze sparing herself nothing, but the look on the warrior's face nearly broke the bard's heart. She leaned forward and listened to the growing litany of vilification, her brow furrowing deeper at each word.
"You and yours rode down a half dozen defenceless people, crushed them bloody into the snow, burned a third of the town, and you expect me to believe that you've returned because you wish to help?! Zeus strike me dead that I should believe something as ridiculous as that! Take them both and put them in jail!" The guards moved forward at her command, and the warrior came instantly to attention, waiting for them to close with her.
"No!" Gabrielle shouted and leapt to her feet. She began talking quickly as slipped past Xena to stood between the soldiers and her now furious partner. "You can believe her because it's true. She's changed. Xena isn't like that anymore. She hasn't had an army in almost two years. She and I travel together helping those we can."
The sight of the small woman gave the guards pause, and a few looked back to the councilwoman for guidance. Laera's gaze raked over her, taking in the bard's battered state. "Yes. From the look of you, I'd gather that you fare quite well in her company." She glanced distastefully at the bruises and blood decorating Gabrielle's body. "Your condition is quite a testament to her change to a better way of life, wouldn't you say?"
Out of the corner of her eye she saw Xena flinch as if it were she who was the one responsible for each mark and injury. She knew how many chances Xena took with her own life to insure her safety, how personally the warrior felt the guilt when she thought she had failed to protect her. To the warrior, the evidence was too overwhelming to be denied.
Gabrielle put her hand on Xena's arm and felt the rigid play of muscle beneath her touch. "You're wrong. The Destroyer of Nations is dead. Xena only wants to atone for the wrong she's done." And with what energy she had left, Gabrielle launched into the story of Xena's efforts to end the decade long war at Troy, the battle between the Greeks and Trojans and Xena's rescue of the nearly abducted Helen. It was briefer than she would have liked, but it included all the essentials, some of which were similar to their own predicament. She watched the stoniness on Laera's face and wasn't foolish enough to think that the council member would come around completely. All she wanted was a crack, a small opening to exploit. And if anyone could exploit a crack in a person's walls, Gabrielle felt she had enough experience to have a chance at it.
"How does your city fare now?" the bard continued, her voice growing hoarse. "If we're lying, then the outcome will surely be the same. Stephicles is not a compassionate man. He wants the Spear and he won't stop until he has it. And given the strength of his army, you have to know that without intervention, without help, he's going to succeed. You've faced Xena once and you already know what a formidable opponent she is. She possesses the knowledge you need to end this war. How can you refuse her help when you know it could be your people's only chance? If they suffered once before, think of how much worse it will be now. He won't stop until he has what he wants, and even then there's no telling what atrocities you'll face. Let us help you if we can," Gabrielle pleaded. She kept her gaze locked with that of the other woman, determined to convince her of her sincerity. "Please."
Gabrielle watched with concern as Laera turned away, seeming to study the tapestry of 'Demeter's Winter'. In the expanse of barren death, empty fields, and the presence of Hades with Persephone under his cloak, she appeared to look for some sign of hope, some indication that life would renew itself, and flourish again. The map, too, drew the woman's eye. Gabrielle could imagine how its flat surface would gave rise to the mind's eye the streets and buildings that made up the city. And even more still, the people who populated it that Laera no doubt governed and loved.
Laera touched the tip of her worn leather show to the edge of the map. The harvest hadn't been good, and with the harsh winter and the siege she didn't know how much longer they could hold out. Even with rationing the effects of prolonged deprivation were beginning to show... What to do?
The older woman glanced over her shoulder towards the grand tapestry hanging above the council table. The priests and priestess had prayed continuously since their forced confinement by Stephicles' army, begging their Goddess for a sign, a vision, for help or hope in some form. She had been told more than once, by the head of the temple, that Athena was distant, unable or unwilling to communicate Her will. It was only a message from the young acolyte behind her, plagued by violent dreams, who had offered something new in recent weeks...
That hope and death would ride within the storm...
Laera then turned to look at Xena. And here I behold Death made flesh. Could she be the one? The councilwoman noted how guarded the warrior's eyes were, how impassive her expression. At last she turned back to face Gabrielle. "You offer an ardent speech, but I wonder if your loyalty is not misplaced." She watched in some amusement as the blonde woman bristled, preparing to speak, but she interrupted "No, no; don't bother. You've given me much to think on, but before I decide, I would ask you this." Laera stepped between the guards and came face to face with the bard. "Her I cannot bring myself to trust," she said, pointing to Xena. "But you... I have to wonder what would bring a girl so young to travel in such monstrous company. Tell me true, do you come here to help us? Would you swear it?"
Gabrielle reached out then and grasped the other woman's hands, feeling the cool, papery skin against her own. She could see the edges of desperation in those slate grey eyes, and could sense Laera's reluctance to reach out and hope. Squeezing gently, the bard cast her voice as softly as she could, willing the councilwoman to believe her sincerity. "We won't betray you. I swear it on my life."
Laera loosed one of her hands from Gabrielle's and placed it against the smooth skin of her face, ignoring the speckling of dirt and blood. "If you're lying to me, my dear, then your life will be the price."
The bard blinked in surprise; the comment had been murmured so softly and kindly that it took a moment for the import of the threat to sink in. Before she could respond, Laera patted her cheek and stepped back.
"I will think on what you've said, and I will speak with the other members of council. Meanwhile, you will be... guests... of Neapolis. I believe there is still a room yet available upstairs."
"Mistress?" questioned the young woman behind her. Her expression was one of surprise.
"It is either that or the jail. And I can't see this one consenting to be caged, can you?" Laera looked over Gabrielle's shoulder, watched the grim smile of agreement appear on Xena's face. "So, instead of her ripping a wall out and beating my guards with it, perhaps she'll suffer to stay in the room?" This last was directed at Xena, and Laera waited for the warrior's tight-lipped nod.
"Besides," she continued. "The young one is bleeding and requires attention. Post guards at their door though. And Xena." The warrior gave the older woman her full attention. "As you have come here in peace, I will hold you to it. But we have reason to remember you," Laera pulled loose the high close collar revealing the twisted and swirled scar tissue of a burn trailing from her neck down beneath her robe. "And, I promise you; if you dare threaten my people again, Neapolis will be known as the city that brought down the Warrior Princess." Without waiting for any acknowledgement, Laera turned, signalling to the younger woman to follow before walking back down the aisle, pride in every step as she moved toward the door. "I will call on you when a decision has been made."
"Nice lady," muttered Gabrielle even as she swayed in place.
Xena face was expressionless as she put a steadying hand on her back and pulled the bard against her to help hold her upright. In the better light she peeled away the strip of material on her shoulder to look and heard Gabrielle let out a harsh breath. "We need to look after this now." Xena looked expectantly at the guard Laera had spoken to.
"If you'll come with me, I'll set you up and get some medical supplies for her." His tone was rough. His eyes took them in and, from his expression, he didn't particularly like what he saw.
"Thanks," Xena managed. She allowed herself a brief moment of relief that things had worked out, more or less to plan, before nudging the bard. "C'mon, let's get you taken care of." And under armed escort, the two women departed the council chamber.
Gabrielle thanked most of the Gods on Olympus, twice, that the distance to their accommodations was short. Bleary eyed and strangely light-headed, she followed where Xena led her, docile, and quiet. Which, of course, scared the warrior half to death.
The guards had brought them upstairs and nearly the length of the hall before stopping at a large door on the left side. A key was produced and the door unlocked. The soldiers continued to watch the pair of women carefully, still not completely confident that Xena would co-operate. However, the dark haired woman merely stepped through the threshold, pausing to glance around, and halted in surprise. The bard's gasp from beside her shoulder told her that she had seen as well.
"We're supposed to stay here?" Gabrielle asked incredulously. She couldn't believe her eyes.
"What's wrong?" one of the men sneered. "Ain't it good enough for ya?"
The bard and warrior wore twin expressions of astonishment as they took in the opulently appointed room. A large, ornately carved bed dominated one corner, its rich blue velvet coverlet looking soft and inviting even in the weak light of dawn that peeked through the glazed windows. At the other end and taking up much of the wall, was a stone hearth. A professionally rendered painting of some noteworthy citizen graced the dark wooden mantle, and wood was stacked neatly nearby for use. Tables, chairs, thick rugs, a wardrobe... it was far and away more than they had anticipated. However, what caught their attention, even more than these, was the raised tub set into an alcove across from the bed.
The two women glanced at each other and then the guard. "Um, this looks great," the warrior murmured as she scratched her dirty nose and tried not to smile at the hungry look that Gabrielle was giving the bath. "Thank you," she added for good measure. Doesn't hurt to stay on their good side. Not that this guy appears to have one.
The guard merely grunted in response. "We'll be back with supplies shortly. Councillor Laera ordered that the girl be looked after." With that the group withdrew. They heard the sound of the key in the lock, and then the muffled conversation of the guards standing watch outside the room.
Finally alone, Xena gave her partner a nudge toward the fireplace. "G'wan and sit down for a minute while I'll make up a fire. We need to get you warmed up." The storyteller moved slowly, too slowly to suit the concerned blue eyes that tracked her progress as Gabrielle gingerly seating herself on the smooth stone hearth. Disquieted by her friend's almost unnatural silence, Xena hurried at her task; her skilled hands coaxing forth a strong blaze in little time from the kindling. Satisfied for the moment with the arrangement, Xena reached out towards Gabrielle when a knock at the door sounded.
Xena gave the bard an apologetic grimace at the delay before rising smoothly to her feet, waiting as the door swung inwards. To her amazement, a procession of people entered the room bearing buckets of steaming water that they proceeded to deposit into the tub at the far corner of the room. One woman detached herself from the group and approached the warrior, a bowl of water in one hand and healing supplies in the other. Behind her, a young man carried two bottles, a pair of goblets and a small tray, which were set on a nearby table. "What's all this?" I don't get it. Fifteen minutes ago she wouldn't have been happier than to have my head on a pike.
"Milady." The young woman curtsied, clearly fearful. "Councillor Laera did say that you 'twere have fresh bandages, herbals, water and food, and these." A bundle of dark cloth was set on the bed.
"You didn't have to do this, but... thanks," Xena responded gratefully. They have enough problems without concerning themselves with extra mouths so why... Ah. That's not the whole picture now, is it? "Is that all she said?" she probed.
The woman lowered her eyes and spoke quickly. "She also said, 'I trust she'll put the water to good use. I don't want her scaring the council any more than necessary.' "
Placing her hands on her hips, Xena rose to her full height and gave herself a once over. The dark clothes had suffered on the way over the wall, and she conceded that the combination of gore splatters and mud smears had probably done little to alter the elderly woman's perception of her. She lifted an eyebrow in wry acknowledgement and accepted the medicines and bandages from the frightened woman's trembling hands. "We'll be sure to do that."
"We'll be back with the rest of the water shortly," the servant added quickly over her shoulder and then fled the room hastily on the heels of the others. Xena stared after her, a mix of sadness and resignation in her expression. With a shake of her head, Xena examined the bundles on the bed and was pleased to see the heavy material resolve itself into robes as she held one up. Tucking it under one arm, she came back to the fireplace where she sat down and slowly began her examination of the visibly drooping bard.
"They're afraid, but willing," Gabrielle said suddenly, barely speaking above the crackle of the flames. "That's a hope."
"I was wondering if you were ever going to talk again," rumbled Xena in reply as she helped Gabrielle ease out of her clothes. The soaked material was set to dry on the hearth and replaced with the dark robe provided by the serving woman. The edges of it were pushed open and back, allowing the material to slide off Gabrielle's shoulders to expose the nasty wound.
Xena dipped a clean cloth in the water and began washing out the cut. "He got you good." The seeping injury had bled profusely, and Xena could see from the way the bard's eyes wandered that she was feeling the shock a bit yet. The wound was quickly cleaned with a disinfectant from the kit before she got down to the serious business of sewing her friend back together.
Gabrielle's fuzzy mind wandered about, settling briefing on the fire, then over to Xena's face, and finally to the hands which tended her. She loved this side of Xena; the way she could be so soft and gentle. This was the side that was almost never seen, except by her, it seemed. And, really, she doubted that most people would believe her if she told them. The long fingers of one hand rested lightly against her collarbone, holding her still, while the other performed the delicate movements. The warrior threaded the needle through muscle and skin with such skill that, while it hurt, it wasn't overpowering in its intensity. The tiny movements kept drawing Gabrielle's attention back to the hand holding her steady. It was warm and gentle, and she took comfort from it. "I love your hands."
"What?" Xena asked, concentrating on keeping the sutures as fine as possible. The growing trail of thread against the backdrop of red and swollen skin was difficult for her to look at, but she didn't want to entrust the bard's care to anyone else but her own.
"Your hands. They're beautiful." Her voice was low and whispery. "So strong, yet gentle. Just like you."
Xena glanced up and saw the wash of firelight play over her friend's face in shades of rose and orange, mixing with the shadows there. The bard's expression was so serious she wasn't sure what to say. She bowed her head again, attempting to evade those eyes that expressed far more than she could comfortably interpret. "Um... thanks," she mumbled under her breath as she went back to inserting the stitches.
She was saved from whatever it was the bard was going to say next by another knock at the door. Glad for the distraction she sprang to her feet as the portal opened, admitting the last of the servants. The tub was filled quickly, more quickly than Xena thought absolutely necessary, but then, given her reputation, the warrior couldn't fault them for their reaction. It was hard though, and she tried not to let it touch her as she returned to the hearth.
Xena seated herself close to the bard and carefully completed her ministrations to the battered area. It had been a nasty one, placed near the juncture of shoulder and neck. A few inches over or lower and... Stop. Just stop. It was too frightening a thought to contemplate. Needing to distract herself, she retrieved the container of drinking water off the table and filled a goblet. Xena stood for a moment watching her friend long enough to notice the weary slump of her body before returning to Gabrielle's side. "Here." Large hands wrapped themselves around smaller ones, ensuring a secure grip. "Drink it all."
Leaving the bard for a moment, Xena wandered over to the tub's edge and leaned over to allow her fingers to trail through the water. This is going to feel so good. Better get Gabrielle in before she falls asleep on the floor, though. "Hey," she called over. "The water's ready if you are."
Gabrielle's eye snapped open and she craned her head around to see for herself. The gentle rise of steam over the tub's calm surface drew her like a siren's song. Xena watched with amusement, as the bard shed her robe and rib bandage, and walked entranced to the bath. With a sigh that couldn't be contained, the smaller woman slid over the rim and lowered her battered and naked body into the hot water. Gabrielle let out a deep groan of sheer pleasure as the water enveloped her. "Gods, this feels so-o-o good."
"Hedonist," Xena said, chuckling to herself over the synchronicity of their thoughts.
"Damn right," the bard shot back over her shoulder. "This the first time in ages I've been able to sit still, and be warm, clean and comfortable all at the same time. Cut me some slack."
Behind her, Xena looked contrite. Well, it's true, the warrior remonstrated herself. Can you blame her for wanting to enjoy it for a while? It's been what... three weeks of cold streams since a lukewarm ewer of water in a louse-ridden inn. The only place we could find after riding away as quickly as we could before Salmoneus could snag us into another of his bizarre schemes. Boy, Xena, you sure know how to show her a good time, don't you? They so rarely took time for themselves, being so constantly on the move. Because of me. She stood and just watched the bard for a while, seeing the other woman's obvious pleasure. Gabrielle's right, she decided abruptly; it wouldn't hurt to enjoy such moments when they could. She watched for a moment longer as her friend slowly began cleaning off the residual blood and grime that the rain hadn't already taken care of and then, with a grin on her face, Xena began peeling off her own clothes.
At the sound of an armoured breastplate clanking to the floor, Gabrielle spared her partner a look. And then watched out of the corner of her eye in appreciation at the strong and beautiful body being revealed as the warrior pulled the dark tunic and shift over her head. Her eyes locked with Xena's while the taller woman continued to strip, one boot clattering to the floor. "What do you think you're doing?" Gabrielle asked warily as she scrubbed at the blood on her left side.
"I'm gonna take a bath."
Gabrielle watched the other boot get tossed negligently over Xena's shoulder. That dangerous little grin was back on Xena's face. "You mean after me." She watched the pants get similar treatment before the warrior sauntered purposefully towards the tub. "I mean it, Xena. There's hardly enough room in here for one."
"Nope." Her undergarments knew the miracle of flight for a brief time before landing perfectly on top of the other clothes. "There's room." She'd make room if she had to. "Move over."
"There's no way we're going to fit side by side in this thing." She tried not to watch too blatantly as Xena stopped and glared at the tub, her fingers tapping at the bare skin of her hip while considering the situation. Gabrielle went back to her washing, but looked up as Xena moved behind her. With relative ease the warrior supported her body's weight neatly with both hands on the edge of the tub, lifted both legs smoothly and then deposited herself behind the bard. All without sloshing a drop. It was a tight fit, but it worked. Gabrielle turned and stared, a faint look of irritation warring with amusement on her heat flushed face. "Show-off."
Xena shrugged her broad shoulders and gave her a lop-sided smile. "It solved the problem. And... I was right." She stretched her legs out around the bard and wiggled her toes a little to prove her point.
Gabrielle shrugged, and waved a hand in dismissal. "I already told you; I let you win on the important stuff."
"And how was this important?"
"Malodorous Warrior Princesses make for poor travelling companions," Gabrielle observed loftily, hoping she was safe from any serious retribution.
"Oh, like you're a bouquet of roses yourself."
"At least I wouldn't be mistaken for Argo in a dark alley," the bard rejoined.
"Argo, huh?" Xena poked her in the arm. "I'll be sure to tell her that next time I see her."
"I can't see how it'll make any difference. She barely tolerates me as it is, you know."
"You can blame yourself for that; I still don't think she's recovered from your beautification project."
"She looked wonderful in the ribbons," Gabrielle grumped. Why did warrior and warhorse alike disdain anything remotely feminine? "And that was ages ago."
"It took me three days to get the pink one off her tail." And Argo had glared at her the whole time as if she were to blame. Well, maybe leaving the poor animal alone with the bard at a spring festival hadn't been the brightest idea she'd ever had, but still... "Do you have any idea of how embarrassing it is to take on a warlord when your horse is wearing pink?"
"Uhm." Gabrielle recalled the moment vividly. The bandits and their leader all had a great laugh seeing the various pastel coloured fabrics wound through the animal's mane and tail like a maypole decoration. It probably hadn't helped that she had wound up giggling a bit too. Xena had turned in the saddle and nailed her with The Look before working out her irritation on the group of highwaymen. All sixteen of them. And used the ribbons as gags to shut them up, the bard included, as they marched the lot back to the village they had been harassing. Neither Argo nor Xena had spoken to her for the rest of the day.
"Uhm is right. Do it again and next time I won't protect you from Argo."
Gabrielle giggled softly and worked at the blood still sticking under her fingernails.
They let the silence settle comfortably around them and let themselves relax. Xena smiled again as she let out a sigh, sliding herself deeper into the water. With an eye on the stitches she began carefully pouring water over the bard's shoulders and washing away the blood and stubborn tightness in the younger woman's upper back. The bard gradually gave up on washing her front in favour of the back rub, her head lolling dangerously towards the water, the long blonde strands floating on the steamy surface.
"Careful there. You don't want to drown yourself," Xena cautioned. But the bard only muttered something unintelligible and barely moved. At Xena's poke Gabrielle mumbled again, and as nice as you please, leaned her head back against Xena's chest, her eyes still closed. "Hey." No response. "Gabrielle?"
Xena sighed and gave her an affectionate look. "Well, you've had a rough time of it lately, my bard. It wouldn't hurt either of us to just take it easy for a bit," she murmured as she lay one large hand on the bard's right shoulder while the other stretched out along the cool stone rim of the tub.
What was that? Gabrielle's eyes flicked open, suddenly wide-awake. MY bard? A very warm, very happy glow spread through her exhausted soul. Gods, Xena... It was so unexpected, given everything they'd been through but... she really liked the sound of that.
Xena had felt the other woman's infinitesimal twitch on the other hand and sat with her face screwed up in a painful wince, wondering if she had in fact said what she thought she had just said. And waited, with some anxious trepidation, to see exactly what Gabrielle might have to say about it. But, the smaller woman seemed content to simply lie still against her. One crinkled brow unfurled cautiously. Maybe I was wrong? Or better yet, maybe she's asleep? Xena could only hope. Regardless, she had never meant to say it out loud. At least, not when Gabrielle was in any condition to hear and understand her. Whatever the case, it's too late now.
The bard sighed, and luxuriated in the feel of the warm water, and the even warmer warrior behind her. And then mentally smacked herself, attempting to deflect her growing awareness from where their skin touched and connected as they slid against one another in the water. It's just a bath, for gods' sake. It's not like we haven't done this countless times before. Come on, stop it already. But she couldn't get past the fact, that for some reason, it just felt... different tonight. Quit it! Think about something else. "What do you think is going to happen next?"
"We'll obviously have to wait for the council to decide what they want to do with us." Came the soft reply from over her shoulder.
Gabrielle picked up the soap from a porcelain dish next to the rim, and began to lather. "What if they decide they don't want our help?"
"They'd likely throw us in jail." And probably want to kill me, she deliberately omitted. Neither scenario was particularly good, especially not with Gabrielle to protect from one side or the other. If she had been alone though... Would I let them do it? Her mind turned the thought over a few times, trying to reconcile the need to pay for her crimes against the growing sense of whatever this feeling was that had made her begin to look forward to tomorrow instead of constantly agonising over her past. She even had good days now, hard as that was to believe. "But, I don't think that'll happen."
"I can't believe she changed her mind," the younger woman said. "They must have some memories of you."
"No," Xena disagreed. "Laera isn't one to be intimidated. This was your doing. If you hadn't spoken up we'd be in a cell somewhere below the council hall by now."
Gabrielle blinked at the far wall, considering this. "Me?"
"You," she insisted. "I can't believe you're surprised. You can be very persuasive when you wanna be."
The compliment brought forth a smile, and she ducked her head as she continued her bath. Turning her head slightly, she felt her way carefully with one soapy hand, trying to avoid the stitches on her shoulder.
"Here." The soap was plucked from her hand. "I'll do that; there's a couple spots I missed on your neck."
"Ok." Long fingers scrubbed gently at her skin, and the bard hummed quietly in appreciation. "Is there a plan?"
"Not until we get more information on what's going on around here." The warrior continued to run her soapy hands up along Gabrielle's bare back to her shoulders and then down her arms. It was easy to get lost in the feel of her hands sliding over soft skin. It was relaxing, and almost... hypnotic.
Glad that the heat of the water covered the flush rising in her skin, Gabrielle allowed herself to lean into the touch. She stretched her legs a little, and let her own hands sink into the water until they subsided against Xena's legs where they pressed snugly against her hips. The muscles of the other woman's thighs were smooth, and for a pleasant change, relaxed. She ran her fingers along them towards the warrior's slightly raised knees, exploring the silky contours of skin and scars beneath her palms. Her hand encountered the remnant of the bandage. Touching the material fleetingly, she made a mental note that it would have to be dealt with again, while her hands continued their random journey. All the while she pondered the changes that had taken place recently, that even in spite of the difficulties, allowed for this contact, this closeness, between them. And how much happier they both seemed because of it.
Xena felt the smaller hands shift lazily through the water before finally coming to rest on her thighs. She wondered briefly the bard's recent behaviour, and then dismissed it as just another part of Gabrielle's simple need for contact with others. She leaned her head back against the edge of the tub, and felt the stress and guilt from the confrontation seep away with the rising steam. A calm awareness grew as she let her mind empty of worry for a brief time. It all felt clearer somehow; the rough feel of the wooden tub against her shoulders, the steam, the indistinct murmur of the guards outside, the warm body lying against her...the gentle hands moving along her legs. Her own hands slowed as she came back to herself. What the-?
At their movement from her upper thigh down to her knees, Xena's attention was brought sharply back into focus as the feather light caresses brushed across her skin. They paused over the bandage, playing with the knot idly before continuing in a smooth, almost hypnotic rhythm against her flesh, and she felt herself relax further beneath the slow, even patterns that the bard traced with her fingertips. The sensation was friendly, certainly, but it was also faintly... something else. What exactly, Xena wasn't certain, but she decided she liked it. Too much? Some part of her mind worried a little. The woman with her was her friend. If she was feeling anything it was only because she had just been... without... for a while. That's all. And if her body would still its normal defensive reaction beneath Gabrielle's touch, it was only another indication to Xena of how deeply the younger woman had ingrained herself into the warrior's heart. Right? Right.
Though as happy as that made her, she couldn't get past that quicksilver thread of fear that ran through her at the same time, reacting to the closeness between them. She shoved the panicky feelings aside and shook herself mentally. Come on, Xena, get your head together. Time to move things along here... "Enjoying yourself?" Xena drawled quietly against Gabrielle's ear.
"Mmm," Gabrielle answered, and let her head fall to one side, her cheek against Xena's breast.
"Are you falling asleep on me?"
"No," came the soft and completely unconvincing response, as the bard snuggled even closer.
Xena laughed quietly, and then started washing the bard in earnest, ignoring the protests coming from the small form in front of her. "You'll feel even better once you get in bed. Come on; I'll even wash your hair for you."
After pushing Gabrielle into a sitting position they quickly finished cleaning, and then pulled their pruning bodies out of the tub to wrap themselves in the clean robes. The room, now warm from the fire, provided a cosy sounding backdrop as they wearily climbed into the four-poster bed.
"How long do you think the council will take?" Gabrielle asked as she crawled onto the mattress and burrowed deeply into the thick quilt. Xena shrugged as she rolled the bard onto the other side of the bed, ostensibly so she would be closer to the door. The warrior padded over to her pile of clothes and began laying them out next to the bard's on the hearth. Then grabbed her breastplate and laid it near the side of the bed, putting the armour in such a position that she could draw the hidden knife quickly in an emergency.
"I expect it might be a couple of hours, but for their sake it better not be too long. Stephicles isn't going to be happy with us, and I want to get back to Argo before someone thinks to hurt her to get back at me." She climbed into bed next to Gabrielle, and lay on her back, allowing her body relax through the aches and pains accumulated over the past few weeks that she hadn't allowed herself to feel or deal with. Xena let out a contented groan as she stretched her long frame, feeling the familiar pops and clicks. She rolled to her side, propped on one hand, and stared down at the sleepy bard. The depth of feeling that the smaller woman evoked in her was not anything she ever thought she would experience, and certainly not like this. She reached out her right hand and laid it over top Gabrielle's on the quilt. "Thank you... for sticking up for me," she said self-consciously. She felt Gabrielle's fingers lace through her own and squeeze tight for a moment before relaxing.
"I was glad to. We're friends."
"Friends..." She could only hope... especially after all she'd done...
"Best friends," the bard added without hesitation. "You've changed. She had to know that. And given that a certain Warrior Princess is my favourite topic, it wasn't that hard. You make being a bard a snap."
"Thanks," Xena muttered, her brow furrowed. "I think." She shook her head and leaned over and brushed her fingers through the soft hair. "Rest now. You need it."
"You too," Gabrielle answered drowsily. She felt Xena tousle her hair again before the warrior rolled over on her back.
The fire sputtered and crackled softly throwing shifting patterns around the otherwise dark room. The peace and quiet was a relief, and Xena was more than ready for some sleep when she heard the bard's voice beside her.
"Xena?" Gabrielle rolled on her side, resting on her elbow. "Did you lay siege to Neapolis, too? Is that how you know so much about it?"
"Not now, Gabrielle," groaned Xena, the discussion from the council chamber suddenly reverberating through her mind, as she rolled away from the bard. Muscles made loose from the bath water and the enjoyable company began inexorably to tighten once again.
"Are the things she said true?" The voice she loved came through the darkness, through her darkness. "Did you really... do that ?"
Xena gritted her teeth, hearing the mordbid fascination mingle with the horror. "Drop it, Gabrielle." Her tone left little room for argument. "Go to sleep."
"I said drop it!" Xena growled. Too late. She was never going to get to sleep now, not with the images of a smaller Neapolis in flames, the remains of their winter harvest taken to feed her men and depriving the towns folk of what little sustenance they had left. Nor could she shed the memory of broken and frozen bodies strewn about the blood drenched snow that she had callously ignored once her objectives had been reached.
They had eventually given her what she wanted. They were a brave people, but they could only stand so much. It seemed the stench of fear and blood never grew old in her presence, and she knew her hands would be stained with it to her dying day. It was in the back of her mind when she brought Gabrielle here, and she knew it was probable that she would be recognised. It was only the hope that their need and her abilities might outweigh the horrific nature of her crimes for the length of time it took her to try and find a solution. If they demanded justice of her, well...
...she decided that it would be no more than she deserved.
She felt the shifting of the mattress as Gabrielle moved behind her. A small hand pressed between her shoulder blades and Xena flinched away from it. She was trapped deep in the shadows of her soul, not wanting Gabrielle to touch the rank and bloated heap of memories fit to bursting with the horror of her past. Xena couldn't abide the touch that, like the light that shone from the other woman's heart, seared her and made her feel unworthy of what that simple touch offered.
"Xena..." The tone was questioning, concerned.
Gabrielle, in that moment of contact felt the quiver of tension in the warrior's back and heard the uneven raggedness of Xena's breathing, and cursed herself for not knowing when to keep her bardic curiosity in check. She only wanted to help, but the other woman had closed herself off and was completely unreachable. She's never going to get to sleep now, thanks to me. Real smart, Gabrielle. Way to go. "I'm sorry, Xena," she whispered, and rolled on her side facing the other direction, a small tear trickling down her face and into the pillow. As if she didn't already have enough to deal with, you go and hurt her more. The whirlwind demands of the past few days caught up with her in the space of moments, and before she knew it, Gabrielle fell from inconsolable wakefulness into a deep sleep between one tear and the next. She was quite unaware of the moment her friend slipped from the bed to sit by the hearth and stare in tortured silence into the dancing flames.
The muted percussion of falling rocks punctuated Xena's thoughts as she took another drink from the bottle. The hours passed by the fire had seemed long, trapped as she was with the company of her spectral remembrances, leaving her feeling drained, frustrated, and impatient. Only the promise of action, of the chance to perhaps cleanse some of the stain from her soul, kept her from pacing the length of the room while she waited for some word from the council.
Xena's blue eyes, ringed in tired shadow, roamed over the room as they had already countless times before. Her restless gaze finally settled on Gabrielle's somnolent shape, all but hidden beneath the covers. A surge of resentment caught her by surprise, and she turned her head roughly away to glare at the inoffensive wall. Stop. It's not her fault that she's curious. True though it was, it was difficult for Xena to let go of her anger. Anger at Gabrielle. Anger at herself. It was inevitable that the bard would be disillusioned when brought face to face with the brutality of her past. This pedestal of Gabrielle's construction was a flimsy thing, unprepared to support the weight of her seemingly inexhaustible crimes. And I wind up making us both suffer when I fall off the damn thing, so I lose no matter what I do. Why should I care so much how she sees me? But, if she were honest with herself, Gabrielle's shining belief in her shored up Xena's own wavering self-image and offered her an ideal to strive for, a different way than she had known before. And thus, it hurt twice as much when she failed in the bard's eyes, dredging up all those feelings of self-loathing and making her wonder how she had thought she could make up for it all.
I don't want you seeing me like this, but there's nothing I can do about it if I'm going to get us out of here alive.I just know I'm going to disappoint you before all this is over. Xena was certain that the girl had no idea how hard it was attempting to live up to the image of the hero the bard portrayed her as. Or how hard it was to reign in her baser instincts that had, for more years than she cared to remember, directed her every move. It was like a beast trapped inside, always clawing at her with a hunger that refused to be sated. It called to her like a dark siren's song to her soul. Saving Neapolis will only be the least of the debts I need to settle. I'll do it though.
But how much further would she tarnish the bard's view of her? Especially in light of all that she would likely do in the next few days? It was depressing and painful, and she took another swallow of wine to give herself a moment's reprieve from her endlessly circling thoughts. Too bad it's not having any effect. Xena scrubbed a hand over her face and let out a long, shaky breath in an attempt to settle her swirling emotions. All this soul-searching did nothing but confuse and upset her. She needed to forget emotion. Ignore it. Focus. Focus. There. That hard edge she needed slid into place.
Another crash, much closer this time, shook the room and nearly sent Gabrielle tumbling from the bed. Plaster and dust rained down from the ceiling, liberally covering the bed and bard alike.
"Oh, good; you're up," came Xena's sarcastic voice from across the room. Gabrielle half-crouched on the bed looking for the attack. Seeing nothing, she let her right hand creep up to her shoulder and rubbed it a little, feeling the deep ache and stiffness of the injured muscle. "I was wondering how bad it would have to get before it would wake you." A wad of clothes suddenly landed on the bed. "They're dry. You can get dressed now."
Bothered by the rough tone in Xena's voice, the bard mutely followed orders and cringed as another crash shook the building to its foundations. The gritty feel of her eyes indicated her rest had been far too short, and she had no doubt that it was going to be another long day. It hardly seems as though there are any other sort anymore. "When did it start?" she managed to croak. Xena hardly looked concerned, her posture lazily sprawled at the table with one foot resting on its surface next to the food tray. A dark bottle sat in her lap.
"Maybe fifteen or twenty minutes ago."
Gabrielle took a seat at the table and glanced at the shuttered window. How can she be so calm? "Have you looked outside?"
"Uh huh," Xena muttered, offering nothing further. She took another swig of the wine instead. Gabrielle snatched at the bottle and held it to the light. The level suggested that it might only contain a swallow or two more.
"You drank the whole thing?" Gabrielle glared at the other woman, but Xena didn't even bat an eye. "We're in the middle of a siege, Xena, what's the matter with you?"
"I'm fine." The harshness tone from last night was back in her voice as the warrior snatched the bottle back. The tray was pushed in her direction. "Eat something."
From the look of the tray, Gabrielle could see that Xena had not eaten anything herself, apparently willing to make due with the contents of the bottle. She stared openly at her friend while she picked over the dried fruit and wrinkled olives. The haunted exhaustion was back in Xena's eyes, while the rest of her beautiful features remained passive and expressionless. Didn't sleep at all last night, I'll bet. She shook her head sadly, wondering how long the angry, guilt-inflicted depression would last this time. Knowing the warrior, the wine would likely have little effect. Besides which, Xena had far too much control over herself to allow herself to get drunk. But, the fact that she was drinking at all right now was a source of deep concern. Resigned to the fact that she wasn't going to improve matters at the moment, Gabrielle ate a share from the tray and then pushed the rest back towards Xena.
"You have to eat something, too."
"Xena-" Gabrielle began angrily. She broke off as the warrior rose to her feet and brushed past her on the way to the door. Xena stood in front of the portal, arms crossed, appearing to wait expectantly. Just as the bard was going to inquire further, there was a rattle of the key in the door before it was opened. The sight of the warrior, suddenly right in his face, surprised the Hades out of the guard.
"What?" Xena snapped.
Still a little stunned, the man blinked a couple times and managed to get his message out. "The council had convened and wants to meet with you both."
"About damn time. Come on, Gabrielle."
Taking up her staff, Gabrielle stood in the middle of the room for a moment longer wishing she could have her best friend back. While she was at it, she also wished the hot prickling of her eyes would stop, too. Gabrielle dashed a hand across them, and then squared her shoulders before following the Warrior Princess from the room.
Screams and cries could be heard long before they even reached the council chambers. The noise cut to Xena's heart as she pushed past the guard escorting them and ignored their shouts as she ran to the hall. The large oak doors had been thrown wide revealing a chaotic scene of wounded misery. Victims from the damage wrought by catapult stones lay dead or dying at the back of the chamber, laid out on the floor or upon the benches, wherever room could be found or made. Children cried, or called out for a parent, and men and women here and there wept over a loved one. Members of the militia were laid here too; the town healers doing what they could to patch them up before sending them back to the walls. The stench of blood and fear assailed her, and she faltered as memories of her past came into focus and merged with the devastation of the present.
A gasp came from behind her, and Xena knew that Gabrielle had seen it all. "I did this once to Neapolis. It looked like this because I knew siege warfare. And yes; everything she said was true," Xena ground out. Leaving the bard at the door, she made her way carefully through the crowded aisle to find Laera, the guard escort in tow.
The elderly councilor was surrounded by men and women, all of whom laboured over the grand map set in the floor. Even as the warrior watched, runners came and went, sending messages out to the walls in exchange for news and updates.
"How long have you been receiving wounded?" Xena demanded over the barely muted crash of rock thundering against the walls that mingled with the sounds of the wounded and dying.
Laera broke off her conversation with a guard to glare, unfazed, at the wrathful face of the Warrior Princess. "Shortly after you were taken to your room they attempted to scale the fortifications. The militia have been coming here for the past three hours since the efforts from the army to gain the walls by force. When we repelled them, they drew back and began using the catapults. The citizens started trickling in for the last little while or so. But, it is no concern of yours."
"I might have been able to help some of those people!" Xena seethed as she pointed to the silent corner where the dead had been laid.
The fierceness in the older woman's face rivalled Xena's, but she kept a calmer tone in her voice. "Given what I know of you, how reasonable would have been to assume that you had any other knowledge than how to butcher people, much more heal them?"
Xena's face shut down and she leaned against the council table, her face and voice remote and controlled. "Have you made a decision yet?"
"The council has agreed to accept your offer. As your friend wisely pointed out Neapolis' chances of survival are becoming more remote by the hour." Striking right to the point, she stood back and gestured for the other councillors surrounding the map to give her room to see. "What can you do to help us?"
Her mind already at work, Xena squatted down next to the map. "First thing, evacuate the townspeople further into the city, out of range of those catapults. Shelter them with other families, if you have to. And get a squad of troops to these points here and here. Stephicles is attempting to undermine the strength of your wall for the catapults while infiltrating your city via the sewer tunnels. If he can get soldiers under your walls undetected, or knock down a weakened section with the catapult, your fortifications will be useless. Bring heated oil to the parapet catwalks if you haven't already. It makes a painful deterrent to anyone trying the scale them. And then, if the rain lets up at all, you can set their men on fire if you have anyone skilled with a bow or crossbow. When darkness falls, line it with more torches, or lanterns, if you have any. Your torches are useless; it's how I got in undetected." Xena took a breath as she squinted at the outlines of the map trying the see all the angles, and read Stephicles' greedy, albeit shrewd, little mind at the same time.
As she continued to ponder the problem, Laera immediately sent a runner to relay the order to prepare for the underground infiltration. And then she stood back and watched as the Destroyer of Nations brought years of unspeakable experiences to bear in an attempt to protect the same town she had once ravaged seven winters ago.
"Get out all the buckets and barrels you can. Collect the rainwater. If the food runs out, you can still survive for a time on water alone. And if placed around the town, you'll have a ready water supply in case of fire." She paused for a long moment, her mind racing. "What does the food inventory look like?"
"Bettina." Laera snapped her fingers at a younger councillor and the woman produced a sheet of parchment that was quickly handed over to the elder. The older woman began reading it out loud, but stopped when Xena began waving at her impatiently. "I can read it myself, please." She held out an expectant hand.
One grey eyebrow raised itself in an ironic imitation of her own mannerism, as Xena accepted the page from the silent woman. "Quite shocking isn't it?" Xena commented as she let her eyes flow over the page. "They'll let just about anybody have an education these days." A wry grin touched the warrior's lips as she noted the surprised expression upon handing back the sheet back. "What's the population?"
"The last census two years ago indicated somewhere around eight hundred people, but we've grown a lot since then," a man behind Bettina volunteered.
"That means with careful rationing the food could hold out for another two or three weeks before things get really bad." She repressed a grim smile at the surprise on their faces. That's right, the monster can read and do math.
"Define 'really bad'?" the man who had provided the statistics asked worriedly.
"Do you have any pets?" Xena inquired, her face completely serious. She ignored the gagging noise he made and turned back to Laera. "I assume you've attempted to send out messages for help?"
"Yes," she answered with the beginnings of wary respect showing in those hard slate eyes. "That was almost two months ago. We've had no response from either of the militia who left here, and we had to believe that they had either been captured or killed."
"Who were you trying to contact?" Xena felt she was closing in on something.
"Our brother city Kozani. We have a very old alliance agreement with them. We're both worshippers of Athena have always been peaceful, and the treasure that despicable monster outside demands from us is, in fact, a gift of tribute to our temple from Kozani. And in turn we made a similar gift for them, with the Goddess' blessings. Each in turn has indicated that at the need of the one comes the aid of the other. But, we have no way of knowing if the message made it through."
Xena maintained a polite expression through the woman's faithful devotions to the Gods, while mentally rolling her eyes. "Okay. Then that's what we'll do after we make sure the town is as secure as it can be. Gabrielle and I will head to Kozani and get help. If they have anything rivalling what's outside, we can crush them between the Kozani force and the wall. They'll have no where to go. It'll be bloody, but it'll mean one less warlord to plague your gates."
"You're going to leave us here? How are you going to get past the army?" Laera demanded with some exasperation. "Do you think he's just going to let you stroll right passed him?"
"If even your best people haven't been able to break through, then I'm your only chance. And I haven't thought that far ahead yet," Xena admitted. "But, regardless, we won't be leaving before tonight anyway. Much easier in the dark." She turned away for a moment and stared sightlessly at the tapestry of 'Demeter's Summer' as her mind quickly negotiated the churning possibilities. "I think I've got something else, though."
The council members stared in rapt attention, thoroughly bowled over by what they had witnessed so far, quickly caught up as they were in her energy and confidence. Her demeanour towards the situation gave them a chance to catch their breath and feel a little reassured that things weren't altogether lost just yet. But it was still hard, for those who remembered her, to reconcile the woman before them with the creature who had ridden down unarmed and helpless people simply because they were in her way.
"Is the body of the man I killed still... available?" Xena asked. She watched as their faces furrowed in morbid curiosity, somewhat concerned and repelled by the thoughts of what she could want or do with human remains.
"Why?" the man in back got out on a strangled breath.
"I want someone to take my chakram and his body and throw both back over the wall. We need him to think that you've managed to capture us. Tell him you're torturing us for information, and you'll be giving him body parts tomorrow, unless he'd like to end the siege. He won't, but the act of defiance will really upset him." Shall we go the whole distance, Xena? She asked herself as she noticed the looks on their faces. Oh, why not? "Oh, and make certain to throw any of the enemy's bodies back over the wall, too. Less chance of spreading disease, and it'll only irritate him further."
Silent shock answered her.
"Stephicles is confident, intelligent and dangerous. But he's also a hot head who doesn't like being defied. If we poke at him, we should be able to get him really riled up."
The councillors looked at one another. "And this is a good thing?" Bettina asked, uncertainly.
"Mm-hmm." Xena nodded, thinking back to the moment in the tent when she had demanded that he agree to let Gabrielle come with her. "I want to work with whoever is in charge of the militia for the rest of the day."
"That would be Captain Kiran. I'll have a runner take you to her." At the older woman's signal a young man came to her side, perspiration and muck covering his features and uniform. She gave her instructions and then turned back to look up at the warrior. "I'll expect you to join us at noon. We'll keep each other informed of developments throughout the day. Is there anything else?"
"My sword. I want it back."
Laera regarded the taller woman before her for a moment, and then gave the order to the runner already standing by her side. "He'll take you to the barracks. I'll see you at noon."
Xena nodded, impatient to get started. With the runner in tow, she headed for the door, glancing through the growing throng for honey-red hair. She found the bard on her knees next to a struggling child, her hands already stained red up to the elbows, and her tunic and pants likewise smeared. Clinically, she watched over Gabrielle's shoulder as the younger woman spoke in soothing tones as she dressed a ragged flesh wound that stretched from the little girl's shoulder down her back trailing into an angry scratch.
The mother's tear streaked face had calmed as she held her child still under the caring hands of the bard. A bandage was secured as Gabrielle gave clear instructions on how to care for the wound, ending with a firm order to see a healer if the least sign of infection developed. As the mother lifted the child into her arms, Gabrielle acknowledged her awareness of the presence behind her.
"I know you're there. Where are you off to now?" she asked flatly without turning around. She was still upset about last night and this morning, and frustrated that it would be some time before they could have a chance to work things out between them. Her hands busied themselves with gathering the stained rags. She would have them boiled while she went on to the next in the never ending line of people in need of help.
Xena locked her emotions away, needing all of her calm reserve to see her through this. The council had placed so much hope on her shoulders. The pressure to see them through alive and as close to one piece as possible was almost overwhelming. But, it was nothing compared to the weight of her own guilt. And Gabrielle... How I wish I hadn't brought you here. She could see the tightness in Gabrielle's shoulders, and wondered just how upset the bard was with her. Xena raised a hand to touch the soft hair, but stopped, her palm hovering hesitantly, just shy of the long strands that glimmered like gold in the weak light. Unable to bring herself to do it, she let her hand drop to her side. "I'll be with the militia captain. You'll be safer here." And without further word, the warrior beckoned to the runner and they were gone.
Gabrielle turned to speak but could only watch the retreating form, and see the tense, but determined set to the muscular shoulders as she cleared the door. Dammit, Xena... the frustration mounted. Always trying to make the decisions for me, aren't you. But, even anger couldn't keep her from worrying. "Be careful," she murmured.
A deep breath later she was on her feet and marshalling her conscripted nurses as another wave of wounded townsfolk was helped through the door. The sound of suffering and war were harsh in her ears as she and other healers shouted orders for bandages and requests for help to the people assisting with the wounded. Time lost its meaning while she worked hard to hold onto the lives thrust into her care, and tried not to weep when, at times, her efforts still resulted in the loss of one more life from among the growing throng of injured. It seemed the women and children made up the most of her patients.
It's always the women and children, isn't it? The angry thought burned through her as she rushed to assist a healer with a thrashing woman, her leg apparently crushed beyond recognition. Gabrielle grabbed the arm of one of the soldiers who had carried the woman into the hall and raised her voice so she could be heard over the din, "What happened?"
"She was trapped inside a house with a ceiling beam across her leg," the soldier answered. "I know her. We grew up together. Her husband was killed a few months ago when that bastard first showed up. Caught outside the walls by those jackals, and sent back in pieces."
"Gods..." Gabrielle whispered.
"Take care of her. I gotta go. Other people are trapped." The soldier quickly turned and jogged away to join her comrades.
The woman's cries grew louder and she dropped down beside her. "Oh, Gods, someone help me!" the injured woman screamed, her dark hair matted with blood and cold sweat. "Make it stop... please, make it stop!" The woman sobbed as she clutched at Gabrielle, her dark eyes overrun with tears.
It took the bard and three others to hold the woman down while an infusion was forced down her throat to calm her. Gabrielle watched, her stomach tightening with sorrow and revulsion as the healers, grim faced, exposed the injured limb to the wavering light. The shatter bones had been forced through the ragged flaps of skin and Gabrielle gagged at the sight of the unnatural angles at which it lay as a result of the accident. The blood was welling into slow, dark puddles around it.
Feeling her gorge rise the bard turned away and tried to force the woman to lay down, preventing her from sitting up to see. "How bad is it? Oh, Gods, please..." she pleaded as her eyes, round and dilated with shock, stared into Gabrielle's compassionate gaze. Her hands grasped the bard's in a bone-grating grip as she panted. "It's going to be alright, isn't it? Tell me it's going to be all right?"
Gabrielle swallowed hard as she looked over at the healers and then back to the woman. "They're doing everything they can." She didn't want to lie to her. It didn't look good, though, she realised as the two healers conferred in whispers and then sent for someone else.
"Please. I don't want to die. I don't want to lose my baby. It's all I have left of Gyrion." And as the woman pulled a hand free to gently caress her rounded belly, Gabrielle noticed for the first time that the woman was pregnant. Oh, boy. This is not good. She turned to the healers, the question sitting clearly in her sea-tinged eyes. The healer that joined them, an older man in robes stained as red as her own clothing, bit his lip and shook his head. He moved up along side of Gabrielle and took the woman's other hand.
"Milady, I'm Terrence. To save you we must... remove your leg. We can't repair it. It would never heal right and the risk of infection is certain if we don't."
"What?" the woman whispered. "No..."
"If we don't, you and your baby will die. If we do, you have a chance. Let us help you."
"No..." The tears flowed freely as she shook her head back and forth, denying the horrible reality descending upon her. "I can't go through this. It hurts! It hurts so much!"
Gabrielle brushed at the wetness against the woman's cheeks and tried to fight the moisture rising in her own as she added her voice to the discussion. "You can do this. We'll help you through it. We can give you something to relieve the pain, and I'll stay with you. I promise."
"You'll stay?" she rasped through a throat made hoarse from screaming. "You won't leave me?"
"I promise," Gabrielle said again and she held the woman's hand to her tighter, both their knuckles whitening under the strain.
"Who... are you?" she asked between clenched teeth as she stared at Gabrielle, her hope and her fear evident as she accepted the strength being offered.
Terrence motioned to one of the other to get an herbal infusion readied as he prepared himself for the impromptu surgery. Quickly, the patient was given the drink, and once finished, Anna grabbed at Gabrielle's hand again.
"I'm scared," the injured woman whispered.
Gabrielle saw the mix of pain and fear on the pale visage, and tried to see past it as she brushed aside the dark hair from the woman's face. Anna was younger than she realised, and beautiful, Gabrielle decided, as she took in her strong features, greyish with pain and blood loss, that were sprinkled lightly with winter-faded freckles, and the deep brown eyes that at another time might twinkle and laugh in friendly amusement. She desperately tried to ignore the sight of the surgical saw in Terrence's hands out of the corner of her eye. Her heart fluttered hard in her chest. I can't do this. Oh, Gods, Xena where are you when I need you?! Okay, okay. Steady, bard. Go with what you know.
"I'm here, Anna. Let me tell you a story. Just listen to my voice and don't think of anything else, okay? Just the sound of my voice." And taking a deep breath she launched into her telling of Cradle of Hope, the story of Pandora and the child abandoned out of love to protect it from death. Out of the corner of her eye she could see Terrence and his assistants wrap a tourniquet around the thigh of the injured leg and expose the crumpled remnant of the limb to the lantern light they had set up around the makeshift pallet.
Gabrielle tried to keep her cadence easy and loose as she turned her back, and eased herself over the woman to make sure her view was completely blocked. The liquid anaesthesia was beginning to take effect and Anna's head nodded and rolled to one side, her grip loosening noticeably.
Gratefully she watched Anna lose consciousness, but stayed by her nonetheless still telling her tale, drawing it out as the healer's moved feverishly to take care of her and then help the other lives hanging in the balance.
The bard had to pause briefly as the sound of the saw grated noisily over a solid part of the thighbone. She swallowed and felt a little light-headed. Shaking herself she tried to continue. Come on, Gabrielle, you can do this. She needs you. She's just a girl, pregnant and alone. Pull it together! Gabrielle took a deep breath and went on, "And a meeting was arranged between Xena and King Gregor-"
"Oh, goddess! She's haemorrhaging! Quick, press the cloths here. No, here!" Terrence grabbed the wadded material away from the younger man and stemmed the tide of the coursing blood himself.
Gabrielle turned, an expression of terrified worry on her face. "What can I do?!"
"Here! Hold this here!" He took her hands and pushed them into the crimson stained bandage. "If you value her life, don't let go." He took up the saw once again and completed the operation as quickly as possible. Gabrielle blanched unable to look away; the undulating movement of the saw beside her hands could not be ignored as she held steady against the rocking motion and tried to halt the loss of the precious fluid. The sudden clang of the blade against the stone floor nearly caused the bard's stomach to rebel on the spot. A convulsive swallow held it in check, but she had to close her eyes for a moment to regain her composure.
"Move aside, but don't let go!" Terrence barked. He made frenzied motions to the young healer with him and a hot iron from the fire was handed over. At his nod, Gabrielle peeled away the sopping cloths, and tried to concentrate on anything else but the sound of sizzling meat and the charred smell of burnt flesh. "There," Terrence sighed, his shoulders slumping as he applied a salve and a fresh bandage. "Now we can only wait to see if she'll live."
"What?" Gabrielle demanded. "What do you mean? She's going to be alright now, isn't she?"
"Child, the danger of fever is almost certain. She's lost a lot of blood and the risk of infection is just so high given the conditions. I can't guarantee the woman will survive, much more the unborn child. We'll do our best. You finish up here."
The storyteller sat opened mouthed as she watched the two men get up and leave to help the next casualties. They left her there, holding the hand of a blood splattered, unconscious woman, surrounded by soiled strips of linen, and the frail intangibility of hope.
" 'I wanted to look into the eyes of the man who could order the death of a defenceless child,' said Xena'..." The choked whisper was lost in the din as sad green eyes took in the grim reality of a people ravaged by war.